Americans are schizoid when it comes to lawyers. We profess to love hating them, yet to judge from the avalanche of legal thrillers clogging bookstores, we have no trouble accepting them as the heroic descendants of cowboys and private eyes. It’s not as though the attorney as champion is a completely new phenomenon: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason enjoyed a long career, and the courtroom melodrama has been an entertainment staple for decades. But it was the phenomenal success of Scott Turow and John Grisham that revitalized the genre and opened the door for nearly anybody with a law degree, an I-can-do-that attitude, and a catchy title swiped from legalese or trial jargon to place a manuscript with an eager publisher. Here is how the big names in attorneys-at-fiction (other than Turow and Grisham, of course) stack up.
In Prejudicial Error, Bill Blum, a California administrative law judge, uses a mildly involving, though mostly predictable, homicide trial to showcase the by-his-bootstraps professional resurrection of an alcoholic attorney. If Blum’s fiction seems stolid, at least his plotting is credible. Not so William Bernhardt’s. A trial lawyer practicing in Tulsa, Bernhardt has been cranking out low-voltage paperback novels for several years, most of them featuring Ben Kincaid, a young attorney with a heart of gold. Blind Justice finds Kincaid defending a friend accused of killing a drug smuggler. From character motivation to courtroom proceedings, almost nothing rings true, and Bernhardt’s frequent attempts at humor are embarrassingly clunky. D