A not-so-light holiday reading list for lawyers

I am not good at packing. Actually that’s not entirely true because in fact I rarely forget anything and I have only had to reorganise my overweight luggage, to the consternation of others in the checking-in queue, about three times. On the first occasion, in a heaving departures hall at Johannesburg airport, I had to jettison some books to meet the baggage weight and be let on the plane.

One I decided I could live without and entrusted to the aunt I'd been staying with (with quite a strong recommendation not to bother reading it) was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Set in the turbulence of 19th century France it explores the nature of justice and redemption, but is, in my opinion, not very well written, too long and full of irrelevant and mind-numbingly boring digressions.

Despite this and the sniffy reception it received from critics at the time (or perhaps because of it) it is has been a great commercial success, which is fortunate because you are far better off seeing the musical than you are reading the book.  Instead, if you're off on holiday (or even if you aren't) I'd recommend some of these (mostly) shorter and more satisfying downtime books for lawyers.

There is probably no point in reading any more of this post if you haven’t already read To Kill a Mockingbird, the book that has probably inspired more legal careers than any other.  Having said that, I last read it over 20 years ago and my recollection is probably clouded by the wonderful film adaptation (quite possibly the first in black and white I ever watched) in which Gregory Peck is quite dashing as Atticus Finch, the heroic defence lawyer and pretty marvellous dad fighting for justice as he defends an innocent black man in a town riven with racism.

I suppose, if I am in the business of suggesting novels about the law, I really have to come up with something by John Grisham, which will be quite difficult as I have never read any.  I’ve seen a couple of the films though (have you noticed there is a worrying theme developing here) and on that basis I reckon The Firm could be a good one.

I have, however, read some Dickens and there are an awful lot of lawyers in his books – they feature in 11 out of out of his 15 novels – and most of them are not painted in a terribly good light.  Perhaps his most unpleasant, even the most unpleasant fictional lawyer anywhere, is Vholes in Bleak House, ‘a sallow man with pinched lips that looked as if they were cold' who is 'always looking at the client, as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes’.

If you find the image of lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ a personal affront (and who would blame you), you could try A Tale of Two Cities instead.  This presents a far nobler, and for Dickens a much rarer, image of the lawyer, although even Sydney Carton initially has an ill-spent life as a self-pitying alcoholic before he reaches the lofty heights of self-sacrifice.

It is less humorous than you would probably expect of a Dickens novel, but that’s hardly surprising when it’s set against the Terror of the French Revolution.  But it does contain some of the most famous lines in all literature and, after Bob Dylan’s leopard-skin pill-box hat, possibly the best image of a hat ever, a wonderful bonnet like ‘a great Stilton cheese’.

While we’re on the classics, you can’t do better than Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which I studied for GCSE English literature eons ago but, amazingly for a book you are forced to read, I still find fascinating.  It introduces the idea that the law and justice aren’t always the same thing as Portia, probably the first female barrister, outwits Shylock, denying him his pound of flesh.

My favourite legal book, indeed one of my favourite books of all time, is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the original and best non-fiction novel.  A meticulously researched and unputdownable book that made Capote’s name, its success - it has sold millions of copies and been translated into 30 languages – is nothing short of astonishing given the relative anonymity of the individuals involved.

Its genesis was in a short article in the New York Times reporting a brutal but curious multiple murder in the village of Holcomb in November 1959, which piqued Capote’s interest enough for him to travel 1,700 miles from New York to Kansas to investigate.

It has become ingrained into 20th century culture because as well as exploring the complex criminal psychology behind the murders and the effect it has on the community, it chronicles the small-town rootedness that defined post-war America but which was soon to be undermined by the Vietnam War and domestic upheaval.

In a similar vein, you could try The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.  It is, like Capote’s masterpiece, a real-life crime story, but unlike the former it is a genuine whodunit and the case was a cause célèbre at the time.  It concerns the murder of Saville Kent, aged three, who was found to be missing from his bed at his home on the Wiltshire and Somerset border in June 1860.

The Mr Whicher of the title, sent from London to investigate, was one of the eight original Scotland Yard detectives and the appeal of this page turner is in watching him develop his craft and witnessing the sceptical, and even downright hostile, reactions from the local community, the police and the press to his methods and conclusions.  His suspicions, it turns out, were proved to be right and he even provided the template for a new kind of fiction, the detective novel.

Just in case you were wondering, I will be reading Injustice: Life and death in the courtrooms of America by Clive Stafford Smith.  It charts the case of British businessman Kris Maharaj, sentenced to death for the brutal murder of two former associates in Miami 26 years ago, but still trying to prove his innocence.

Stafford Smith, my legal hero who, after I met him at university, would have become my inspiration had I had the good sense to go into the law, has dedicated his professional life to campaigning against the death penalty.  This book highlights the absurdities of a system actually designed to ignore innocence.  And if that doesn’t get your pulse raising, I don’t know what will.

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