The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940)
Short Review: This meticulous study of the lynching of three innocent men in a Western town drew yawning reviews when first published. Its cynical view of an über-masculine sense of justice played poorly to an American audience still locked in a romance with its frontier past. Over time, however, critics have come to recognize Clark’s uncompromising view of mob justice as a work of genius.
Note: Director William Wellman’s 1943 film version of the novel got an Oscar nomination for best picture, but it was not nominated in any other category.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)
Short Review: Sir Eddie Feathers is known among colleagues as “Old Filth” (for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”). A much-admired lawyer, he has earned a prosperous career, a prestigious judgeship and a reputation for probity that seems at odds with the elusive par-ticulars of his past. Gardam’s gifts of observation give her prose the verve of satire, but the pulse of her humanity brings life to the details of Filth’s fading life.
Note: Gardam is 85 and has completed a trilogy based on Eddie Feathers. Noted Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine: “Her prose is so perceptive and fluid that it feels mentally healthful, exiling the noise and clutter of your mind as efficiently as a Schubert sonata. She could make actuarial tables pleasurable.”
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
Short Review: Whether viewed as a work of philosophical genius or a crashing, narcissistic bore, there seems no middle ground for this investigation into the proper role of the intellectual in a world of “second handers.” In the book’s pivotal trial, an architect who has chosen to destroy the building he designed wins his own acquittal by describing to a jury the value to society of a healthy ego. Whether you hate it or love it, The Fountainhead is an important literary work.
Note: Based partly on a screenplay Rand wrote for Cecil B. DeMille, the book was originally titled Second-Hand Lives.
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958)
Short Review: A former district attorney in rural Michigan opens his defense practice by taking on a foul-tempered client accused of murder. The book, which became an Otto Preminger film, sizzles with courtroom confrontations grounded in the nuances of real-life trials.
Note: Traver was the pen name of John D. Voelker, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Short Review: Set in Gilead, a dystopian nation once known as the United States, Atwood’s best-seller explores an overthrow of the Constitution in favor of a Christian theocracy that results in a wholesale reversal of women’s rights. Women are forbidden to read or write or vote. And although the darkest fears presented by Atwood have proved unfounded by the decades since it was published—during the prime ascendancy of the Christian Right in national politics—the book’s fundamental apprehensions could be applied to a more global context.
Note: Atwood is Canadian, and The Handmaid’s Tale was short-listed for the 1986 Booker Prize.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Short Review: In this long-cherished tale of post-Napoleonic intrigue, Edmond Dantès is wrongly convicted of a politically inspired charge of treason. Condemned to prison for life, he escapes to the island of Monte Cristo, where a new identity and a found treasure allow him a chance to extract his revenge.
Note: Dumas acknowledged that he based the complicated plot on the real-life story of François Picaud, a Parisian shoemaker whose story of imprisonment and revenge was discovered by Dumas in police files. Dumas wrote the book in collaboration with Auguste Maquet.
The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
Short Review: Mitch McDeere is recruited to a job almost any associate would kill for: a high-paying gig that comes with a cut-rate mortgage and a BMW. He soon discovers that he’s actually working for a crime family, and that the accidental deaths of lawyers who preceded him weren’t accidental at all.
Note: This was Grisham’s second novel after A Time To Kill, and his first blockbuster. In 2011, author John Grisham received the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for his book The Confession.
QB VII by Leon Uris (1970)
Short Review: This sprawling novel of post-Nazi justice explores a charge of libel brought in a London court by a Polish doctor. The doctor, Adam Kelno, is a naturalized British citizen who stands accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Kelno sues because writer Abraham Cady has accused him of performing thousands of operations on concentration camp prisoners. The truth proves different, but no less disturbing. And the jury’s decision bears out Cady’s prediction that both sides will lose.
Note: The novel is based loosely on a libel action brought against Uris himself by a Polish physician who worked at Auschwitz.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Short Review: This groundbreaking novel, first published in 1937, chronicles the rise of a young African-American woman—the granddaughter of a slave—and her struggle to establish control over her choices in life. At the center of the novel is a charge that she murdered her estranged husband. The novel, written in dialect, explores the turbulence of a sexuality and human identity repeatedly defined by men.
Note: The book was originally condemned by many mainstream African-American critics, but became recognized over time as a literary masterpiece. In 2005, Time recognized it as one the great books written in the English language since 1923 (the year Time began publishing).
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (1951)
Short Review: Wouk’s novel of honor, cynicism and moral judgment during a time of war is better remembered for the film treatment, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Francis Queeg, the beleaguered and oft-bewildered captain of a World War II minesweeper. But even in print, the mutiny and subsequent court-martial is a masterpiece of human drama set inside a legal proceeding.
Note: The Caine Mutiny not only displaced From Here to Eternity on the New York Times best-seller list but also won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
A Time to Kill by John Grisham (1989)
Short Review: This is Grisham’s first novel and, many critics believe, his best. It is a deceptively complicated, character-driven novel set against a simple act of revenge. Grisham almost single-handedly created the legal thriller genre with the 1991 publication of The Firm, but the real-life case upon which A Time to Kill is based prompted him to write novels in the first place.
Note: The book reflected Grisham’s complicated justification of the death penalty at the time. He has since become a vigorous opponent of capital punishment.