Legal Thrillers: Why we love them—and reviews of three new ones

Essay and Reviews by Claire Hamner Matturro

What is it about legal thrillers that consistently entice readers who return to time and time again to this genre? Maybe it starts with the enduring legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird, American’s most beloved book, according to a PBS poll. At its core, Mockingbird  is a classic legal thriller with courtroom drama and a conflicted but valiant attorney facing daunting odds. Certainly, like Mockingbird, the best legal thrillers offer multiple layers of conflict—the bedrock of great fiction. Adversarial conflict, inner emotional conflict, cultural/social conflict, courtroom conflict, and ethical conflicts provide ample plot fuel in a legal thriller.

Robert Bailey, author of Rich Blood (Thomas & Mercer, 2022), thinks familiarity might be part of why readers gobble up legal thrillers. “[M]ost readers have had some encounter with a lawyer in their life, so they can relate to the character,” Bailey says.

Debut writer Bradford Moore, the author of The Phoenix of Upperville (Brandylane Publisher, 2022), agrees: “Most people encounter the legal system in some capacity during their lives. This makes it a highly relatable situation in which the stakes are high, real, and permanent.”

Bailey, a trial attorney, also recognizes the naturally occurring theatrical action that comes with a courtroom drama:

[T]he dynamics of a trial is such great theater and lends itself to a thriller as everything builds, in most stories, to a jury’s verdict. The pacing organically increases as the readers get closer to the end of the trial. Readers who love legal thrillers become familiar with the players they expect to see—judge, attorneys on both sides, jury—so there are certain expectations as they begin a novel, and a writer can succeed by either meeting those expectations or by surprising the readers with something different.

Moore agrees: “The human drama that plays out in a courtroom, from a child custody dispute to a horrible crime, is compelling and addicting. Most of all, the law is a realm where justice is done. Wronged people are made whole and villains get their desserts. We all want to see that happen.”

However, as Mark Zvonkovic, attorney and author of Belinda (Dos Perro Press, 2022), recognizes, not all legal thrillers inevitably lead to a trial.

While many legal thrillers are also courtroom dramas, I think the more literary ones generally don’t involve a courtroom at all. In these the protagonist is a complex character, one who struggles with figuring out what is right in circumstances where the law and morality have a blurred boundary. This is attractive, I believe, to the discerning reader, and the uncertainty during the story about which route a protagonist may take adds a nuanced suspense, as opposed to a guilty or not guilty verdict… . And, of course, lawyers make very entertaining villains.

Regardless of the “why,” the American reading public continues to devour legal thrillers, and at any given time there is usually a legal thriller gracing the best-seller lists. Here for fans of legal thrillers (and any readers who enjoy a great story) is a selection of new legal thrillers sure to delight those who enjoy the genre. All have southern settings and are authored by attorneys with Southern ties.

“Rich Blood” by Robert Bailey

Rich Blood (Thomas & Mercer 2022) is a superb legal thriller with all the classic elements and with the twists and turns Robert Bailey fans know to expect. It travels a somewhat different direction than Bailey’s prior best-selling Thomas McMurtrie series. Unlike McMurtrie, a law professor with a strong, somewhat inflexible moral code, the attorney at the center of Rich Blood—Jason Rich—is a man whose situational ethics allow him latitude and excuses. Rich has never tried a case. He is, in fact, afraid of the courtroom and has made his wealth extracting (or extorting) settlements in personal injury cases. That is, he is what is generally regarded as an “ambulance chaser.” He crassly advertises on billboards making grand use of his last name with his slogan: “In an accident? Get Rich.” Rich’s lax ethical standards and troubled personality make him unpredictable and therefore rather fascinating.

Rich is also fresh out of rehab, struggling with a serious alcohol addiction, and in trouble with the Alabama Bar Association for more than just his drinking. He is already at the end of a fraying rope when his estranged sister Jana calls needing his help. She is in jail on a murder charge, accused of killing her husband. All the evidence points at her guilt. Even her two teen daughters believe her guilty. Like her brother, she suffers from substance abuse. Complicating everything, she is deeply in debt to her dealer who doesn’t care who pays him so long as someone does.

Set in Guntersville, AL, the story uses the lush landscape of the area to its advantage. With fast pacing and ratcheting suspense, Rich Blood is a particularly compelling thriller. But it is Jason and Jana who make this such an enthralling read. Their love-hate sibling dynamics, their struggles with addictions, and their utter self-absorption make them often unlikable but always interesting.

With everything seemingly stacked against him and his sister, Rich reluctantly agrees to defend her at trial. He is not completely alone, having a loyal female partner and an equally loyal investigator. An old crush and a gang of unsavory men also offer backup. That Rich garners loyal support from those who know him best suggests he is more than just a dry drunk ambulance chaser. He might well be a man in search of his own virtue and valor.

The climax comes not just with a bang but with three shocking twists. Riveting, exciting, satisfying—Rich Blood encompasses every element of a classic thriller. Bailey just keeps getting better and better—and that is saying a lot. He is a Huntsville, AL attorney and the author of six prior legal thrillers.

“Belinda” by Mark Zvonkovic

Attorney Mark Zvonkovic’s Belinda (Dos Perro Press, June 14, 2022) is a compelling blend of legal and international spy thriller, with a gloss of romance between the two main characters. While it is labeled book three in a series, it works quite well as a stand-alone.

Protagonist Belinda (Lynn) Larkin, a single female attorney, is on the brink of being forced into retirement by her law firm because of her age. Still active, vital and on top of her game, Lynn still derives meaning from her legal work. Attractive enough to disrupt the thoughts of male counsel during serious business negotiations, she does not want to retire.

Jay Jackson, the other protagonist, is a former CIA spy. Now a rancher, he is haunted by his mentor’s murder. He also stood Lynn up two years earlier, so when he calls her out of the blue, she is still a bit angry at him. But eventually she agrees to fly out to meet him. From there, the novel takes off with action and intrigue as the two face new dangers even as their relationship deepens. Jay’s former activities as a spy and Lynn’s role in tense contractual negotiations are among the converging plot lines that give the novel much of its mystery and page-turning forward movement.

There are a good many characters, plot twists, dual timelines, and world travel in Belinda, and readers will need to pay careful attention. That’s not a criticism at all—just a caution that the book can be intense and complex—but that also gives it much of its power. Set primarily in Houston, Texas; and Baja California; the story raises moral issues and life-choice questions the characters face as they fight against increasingly dangerous odds.

Belinda is an intriguing, well-written novel, blending some of the best features of a legal thriller and international spy thriller.

Mark Zvonkovic lives in Baja California and is the author of two prior books in this series. Before retiring, he practiced law for thirty-five years at three multinational law firms in Houston, Texas; and New York City.

“The Phoenix of Upperville” by Bradford Moore

 The Phoenix of Upperville (Bandylane Publishing, 2022) is an ambitious blend of legal and political thriller by attorney and debut author Bradford Moore. Set primarily in Virginia, the thought-provoking tale takes a close look at conflicts between historical preservation of Confederate memorials and landmarks versus development in a state filled with historical markers and Civil War battle fields. When a development corporation wants to dig up the graves of Confederate soldiers in Spotsylvania to build a strip mall, cultural and historical conflicts flare into conspiracy and murder. The intrigue reaches all the way to Washington D.C. Moore does an admirable job of hooking readers with the “who done it?” angle. He also boldly confronts issues of “the Lost Cause” and memorials to Confederates.

Moore describes his story as one which “considers how history . . . and place impact our present time and Southern identity. The plot involves a young attorney and a detective unraveling an improbable Neo-Confederate attempt to usurp the federal government.”

The story opens with the apparent suicide of a U.S. Senator from Indiana, a man so bland but apparently happy in his life that dual questions quickly surface. Why would he kill himself? Yet conversely, why would anyone kill him? Considered a back-bench senator, his only political act seems to have been planning to introduce a bill that would make it far easier for developers to bypass historic preservation statutes. It would essentially guarantee the developers’ success in building the strip mall over Confederate graves.

An antique gun—the weapon used to kill the senator—appears to be key to the mystery. But detective Ace Williams must first convince his superiors there is a murder involved. Then he must track down the history of the Civil War era pistol in hopes that this will shed light on the case. Ace is an interesting character, a detective whose hobby involves building models of famous battlefields. He is often slow to grasp clues and make connections, but he is also willing to put his career on the line to find the truth.

One of the story’s main lawyers, young Tradd Mashburn holds his own in a large cast of characters and gives the novel its legal thriller angle. Tradd is ambitious but maybe a bit lazy. He is already struggling with heavy drinking issues. Socially, he is from a “first family of Virginia” heritage. “Tradd had been a good law student, but never quite great,” according to the book. Nonetheless, Tradd envisions a bright future in politics owing to what he perceives as his “candescent personality and rakish good looks.” His one great passion is history. Early in the story, he becomes overly intrigued by an amicus brief concerning the preservation of confederate veteran’s graves against a developer.

The legal brief that so intrigues young Tradd was written by Curtiss Waddell, an older, retired attorney. Tradd meets with Curtiss and also his beautiful, spoiled daughter. The two lawyers bond—at least initially—over their mutual love of history. On a tour of Waddell’s antebellum mansion, Tradd notes the older man seems entirely too fascinated with the Civil War. Tradd and Curtiss’s beautiful daughter are soon involved romantically, adding another layer to the story.

A third dominant character, Granville Carr, is old-money, plantation-class Southern elite. Granville holds lofty notions of what a “gentleman” should do—such as “A gentleman never neglects his possessions.” Apparently, those high-sounding notions get crossed up with some more nefarious plans of Granville and his fellow unreconstructed rebels in the Society of the Phoenix. Members of this secret society are passionate about “the Cause,” and equally determined that they “cannot allow the graves of our fallen heroes and comrades-in-arms to be desecrated.” But just how far will they go in pursuit of their goals?

Written with elevated language and a formal style which suits some (though not all) of the characters with their elitist airs, the tale takes a leisurely approach in building suspense, but this allows readers to get to know the main characters before the action gets popping. Despite the book’s sometimes meandering pace, its various intrigues and human-interest angles should propel readers forward to the explosive climax.

The author excels at descriptions of Virginia, its cities, its countryside, and its people. In recounting a steeplechase in an enclave of the socially prominent, one of his characters quips about the “bluebloods in pastels stand around talking in the present tense about things that happened two hundred years ago.” In illustrating “the aromatic smells of recent blossoms and the warbling chorus of returned birds,” he observes, “The space between Richmond and Charlottesville was an enchanting amalgam of beauty and history that showed particularly well in the spring.”

The Phoenix of Upperville is a promising debut with an ambitious plot, solid character developments, and many mysterious layers woven together to create an absorbing read.

A Richmond, Virginia, native who is passionate about history, Bradford Moore holds a J.D. from Louisiana State University.

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