Reading About Many a Legal Proceeding

Indeed, literature can get very compelling when depicting crime and (sometimes) punishment, to reference the title of a certain Russian novel. And when fictional works depict that, all kinds of stuff can come up.
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It's no surprise that literature features plenty of court cases. After all, there have always been many real-life, high-profile trials -- such as the recent prosecutions of the men who invoked Florida's awful "Stand Your Ground" law to try to justify their killings of unarmed black teens.

Indeed, literature can get very compelling when depicting crime and (sometimes) punishment, to reference the title of a certain Russian novel. And when fictional works depict that, all kinds of stuff can come up -- convictions or acquittals, competent or incompetent judges, ethical or unethical attorneys, good or bad police work, manipulated evidence, better legal representation for the rich, sensationalized media coverage, etc. And, of course, racism and sexism.

There's certainly a racial element in the court cases of classic novels such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Richard Wright's Native Son. In Lee's book, a black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In Wright's, a black man unintentionally kills a white woman after panicking when put in a compromising position. And in John Grisham's A Time to Kill, two white racists rape and beat a 10-year-old black girl -- setting off a chain of events that leads to a dramatic trial.

Quite a few Grisham novels have legal themes -- as do the books of certain other authors such as Scott Turow and (Perry Mason mysteries writer) Erle Stanley Gardner.

Literature's legal scenarios also feature some memorable female defendants: Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time ("legally" but unfairly sent to a psychiatric hospital), Grace in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (accused of helping to murder an employer), Hetty in George Eliot's Adam Bede (accused of killing a baby) and Laura in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age (murder of a lover), to name two books from the 20th century and two from the 19th century.

Among the other 19th-century novels with legal scenarios of some sort are Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (devastating lawsuit for the Tulliver family), Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (Edmond Dantes unjustly sentenced to a harsh prison term), Charles Dickens' Bleak House (long-running litigation), Wilkie Collins' A Rogue's Life (judicial exile in Australia), Emile Zola's Savage Paris (Florent's arrests) and Herman Melville's Billy Budd (shipboard "justice"). The last was published posthumously in 1924, a year before another posthumous release -- Franz Kafka's The Trial -- became a classic of the legal-nightmare variety.

Literature also depicts prosecutions of a very political nature, with one example being E.L. Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel featuring Cold War-era characters based on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Plays? Among those with a legal theme is Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's fictionalized version of the Scopes trial that "starred" famous attorneys William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow.

Last but not least, there's the previously referenced Crime and Punishment -- though Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel is more about Raskolnikov being punished by his own conscience than by the judicial system.

Obviously, I've named only a few titles with court cases and the like. What are your favorite novels or other literary works that feature legal proceedings?


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