Thursday, November 04, 2010

Scott Turow's five best legal novels

Scott Turow is the author of legal thriller Presumed Innocent and eight other bestselling works of fiction including, most recently, Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent. His non-fiction writing includes Ultimate Punishment, a reflection on the death penalty.

At FiveBooks, he discussed five favorite legal novels with Christine Thomas. Their discussion of one novel to make the list:
The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens

The Just and the Unjust was the only book ever reviewed in the Harvard Law Review – is it standard reading for attorneys?

No, I don’t think it’s standard reading for anybody any more, which is why I put it on the list. Cozzens was regarded as a major American novelist in the middle of the 20th century, and he has fallen by the wayside in terms of public esteem. But this is just a very, very good book about a small-town lawyer. It’s ultra-realistic, which means that it is from that time when realist novelists believed that their job was to portray only the so-called middle range of experience, which other people might call boring. But it’s a really beautiful book. It’s a beautiful portrait of a time and a place. If anybody really ever wants to know what it was like to be a small-town lawyer in the United States in the 1930s, people whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers were lawyers in a small town and want to know what their life was like, I would say read this book.

People also say this isn’t a crime book but about the lawyer and the lessons he learns. Is this what books about the law do well – at least the books you like?

I would agree with that. The books I like tend to be more about character than plot. This is a book that’s steeped in the details of a lawyer’s life, and I read it while I was in law school. But it’s a wonderful book. It is, again, not full of excitement. If you want to read about car chases this is not the right book for you.

Cozzens was a contemporary of Faulkner and Hemingway. Why do you think, as you mentioned, he’s fallen by the wayside?

I think he’s a very fine writer; I don’t think he’s either Faulkner or Hemingway. Hemingway basically changed the nature of the American story; although his macho side has caused him to fall out of vogue, I think his novels will actually prove to last a long, long time – even though he may have created stereotypes that people treat with some scorn. Faulkner, I think, is regarded by many, with great justification, as the greatest American novelist. His manner is unique, and the profundity of Faulkner at his best is pretty much unrivalled. He’s an amazing, amazing writer and he goes on that short list, you know; he can get in the ring and battle Tolstoy. Cozzens was not as path-breaking a novelist.
Read about another novel on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue