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Chris May 20, 2013

Legal thriller novels often lean toward the thrill element over the legal aspects. John Grisham’s novels tend to feature characters being chased and their phones being tapped because every case involves some dark conspiracy. Michael Connolly’s Lincoln Lawyer character Mickey Haller is a great lawyer character whose cases turn into film noir plots. There are many likely reasons for this style–to attract non-lawyer readers, to add excitement, to prepare for film adaption. The technique works. Grisham and Connolly’s books are bestselling page-turners that make good movies.

Sheldon Siegel, a securities attorney turned novelist from San Francisco, has shown with his masterful rookie effort, Special Circumstances, that a courtroom novel can be a page-turner by focusing on the story of investigating and trying a murder case to verdict. The novel introduces the lawyer characters of Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez to launch their series.

Mike Daley is a former public defender who was a priest before he became a lawyer. He left the public defender’s office to run the white collar crime practice of a prominent San Francisco white shoe firm. When the firm decides to cut him loose, he opens up a solo practice, subleasing an office from his ex-wife and former colleague at the p.d.’s office Rosie Fernandez. Mike immediately picks up his first case when a bigshot partner at his former firm is found murdered in his office with a young associate. Mike’s friend Joel, also an attorney at the firm, is charged with the murder. Adding to the entertainment is that another former partner of the firm was just elected District Attorney and is prosecuting the case.

The Hollywood plot points end there as Daley, who has a witty and wry personality, provides a first-person narrative of preparing for and putting on the defense of his accused friend. He does a good job explaining away the typical legal thriller tropes. Why does Mike only have one case to work on? Because he just started his practice (Perry Mason had the incredible fortune of working on one case at a time, one right after the other). Why is the case going to trial so quickly? Because his client refused to waive his speedy trial rights. Even as the trial progresses, Mike is still unsure of the guilt or innocence of his client who isn’t telling him everything. For much of the novel, the reader is left to be a juror evaluating the evidence presented by the prosecutor and challenged by Mike. Siegel presents the trial through witness examinations peppered with objections and rulings. Unlike many other legal thrillers which have their trials cut short by surprise confessions or additional murders, Mike’s trial goes to verdict.

My favorite legal novel series was the Paul Madriani series by Steve Martini, which is also set in California and shares some similarities with Siegel’s work. After reading Special Circumstances, I will be following the fictional careers of Mike and Rosie as much as Paul’s and Harry’s. That is, when I’m not furthering my own real and fictional legal careers.

Christopher DeMatteo is a real attorney and aspiring writer who owns and operates his own practice, DeMatteo Law LLC, 129 Church St, New Haven CT 06510 (203) 815-6299. To learn more about this and other topics visit DeMatteo Law LLC at its website New Haven Attorney.