The Final Judgment

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.

Richard North Patterson, a former San Francisco trial lawyer, has been writing courtroom thrillers for more than a decade. In The Final Judgment California judge Caroline Masters (a major character in Patterson’s 1992 breakthrough novel, Degree of Guilt) returns to her small New England town, and to her estranged family, to defend a young niece accused of murder. With his effortless narrative skills and shrewd intelligence, Patterson is one of those novelists who only gets better with each new book — and right now, he’s the only rival Grisham and Turow should worry about. A