Americans are schizoid when it comes to lawyers. We profess to love hating them, yet to judge from the avalanche of legal thrillers clogging bookstores, we have no trouble accepting them as the heroic descendants of cowboys and private eyes. It’s not as though the attorney as champion is a completely new phenomenon: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason enjoyed a long career, and the courtroom melodrama has been an entertainment staple for decades. But it was the phenomenal success of Scott Turow and John Grisham that revitalized the genre and opened the door for nearly anybody with a law degree, an I-can-do-that attitude, and a catchy title swiped from legalese or trial jargon to place a manuscript with an eager publisher. Here is how the big names in attorneys-at-fiction (other than Turow and Grisham, of course) stack up.
In The Tenth Justice, which recently rocketed onto the best-seller lists, 26-year-old Columbia law school grad Brad Meltzer takes an inspired premise — a Supreme Court clerk is suckered by a con man into revealing an upcoming decision — and then just blows it completely. Instead of a sophisticated thriller, he’s written a pseudo-Hardy Boys mystery. Even the behind-closed-doors stuff is rudimentary and inauthentic: It’s as if Meltzer did all his research at the Court gift shop. To make matters worse, he completely sabotages the novel with a desperate, preposterous finale replete with kidnappings, mild torture, a ”surprise” villain, a foot chase, and a fistfight, employing tired action-and-suspense riffs familiar to viewers of bad made-for-TV movies. D+