Making crime pay

US trial lawyers are making a killing out of crime. More and more attornies are earning big bucks from writing chunky legal thrillers – without even needing to charge their readers by the hour.

John Grisham's 'The Firm', for instance, sold over 25 million copies in 18 months, making him the fastest-selling writer in history.

And he is not alone: the best-seller lists in the US are dominated by writers such as Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson, Nancy Taylor Rosenberg and Steve Martini, as well as Grisham. They sell respectably in the UK, too, but not in anything like the same numbers and several successful US lawyer-writers have not even found a publisher over here. Why the difference? Are we two nations divided by a different approach to crime fiction?

Taking a leaf out of the book of my own detective, the long-suffering Liverpudlian Harry Devlin, I have become fascinated by the mystery. Since the days of Sherlock Holmes, it has been axiomatic that it is a capital mistake to theorise without data. So what are the facts?

Courtroom crime novels have long been a staple of the mystery genre and lawyers have written many of the best of them. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was an attorney who memorably gave up the law to earn more money as a tyre salesman and in recent years, the tradition has been continued in the UK by writers such as Michael Gilbert and Frances Fyfield. Yet, despite the critical acclaim accorded to their books, sales are unlikely to match those of the new generation of US attorney-authors.

Marketing hype may not provide the full answer but it does yield a clue. Think of the publicity which accompanies so many US legal mysteries.

The phrase “in the tradition of 'Presumed Innocent'” is chanted like a mantra. That book, by Turow, was published in 1987 and it began the present trend. Few novels of the last 25 years so richly deserve that familiar label so beloved of lazy reviewers: “unputdownable”. I can remember no other novel which has kept me reading until the middle of the night, desperate to find out whether Rusty Sabich was indeed guilty of murdering his lover Carolyn Polhemus. The novel is conspicuously well-written and it boasts a series of dazzling plot twists. Its success has spawned innumerable court-based murder stories but Turow's disciples, although often capable writers, have not been able to improve upon the original. Invariably, they have latched on to the trappings of success, including the idea of a snappy title with a legalistic ring.

So we have had 'Mitigating Circumstances', 'Interests Of Justice' and 'First Offence' by Rosenberg (“a female Scott Turow”), 'State v Justice' by Gallatin Warfield. 'Principal Defence' by Gina Hartzmark, 'Degree Of Guilt' by Patterson, and 'Reasonable Doubt' and 'Inadmissible Evidence' by Philip Friedman. Get the picture? By these standards, my own idea of taking titles from 1960s pop songs seems way off beam. Even Turow has jumped onto his own bandwagon with 'The Burden Of Proof' and 'Pleading Guilty'.

'The Firm' stands out not only because it is office, rather than court-based, but also because of the brilliant simplicity of its central idea, that of a law practice funded by and run for the benefit of the Mafia. And another clue to the gulf between English and US views of the legal world. Mitch McDeere's predicament is gripping, but not one with which the average solicitor can readily identify; being in hock to the Legal Aid Board is not quite the same.

The clearest distinction between the US experience and ours, however is that the legal system enjoys a higher profile on the other side of the Atlantic.

The modern hero of a legal thriller is often a charmless character, an aggressive yuppie whose personal life is threatened by a compulsion to climb the career ladder and the stories do not sell because of the public view of US attornies. Steven Spielberg pandered to a popular prejudice when in 'Jurassic Park' a tyrannosaurus rex devoured a lawyer cowering on a lavatory seat. The truth is that in the post-Cold War era, the spectre of litigation has replaced reds under the beds as a source of menace and danger.

When a woman complaining of sexual harassment while in the employ of a prominent legal firm can be awarded damages of $7.1 million, plainly no-one is safe from the devastating effects of a lawsuit. Think of those cases which have become full-scale media events featuring Clarence Thomas, William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson and now OJ Simpson: a potent combination of race, sex, money and now murder, perfect not only for prime-time television but also for translation into fiction. Key elements of Patterson's 'Degree Of Guilt' were foreshadowed by Thomas's senate confirmation hearing. Causes celebres in England are not in the same league. The Scott Inquiry plods on; Angus Diggle is scarcely a Mike Tyson.

The trouble is that if this analysis is correct, British lawyer-authors will not match the sales of their US counterparts until the day our society is as neurotic about litigation as theirs. For many, that will be a dreadful prospect. Myself, I can hardly wait.

Martin Edwards' latest Harry Devlin novel, 'Yesterday's Papers', is published by Piatkus, price u14.99.