Episode 220: The Appeal of a Legal Thriller

On February 25, 2023, Kasie and Rex jumped in on the #MurduaghMurderMania with their take on legal thrillers. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Appeal of the Legal Thriller


  • Real-Life Legal Drama: The Murdaugh Murders
  • The Rise of the Legal Thriller
  • What’s Real and What’s So.Not.Real.
  • How to _______ your Legal Thriller
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

South Carolina is embroiled in a dramatic legal thriller right now. The Murdaugh trial, if you’re living under a rock, is eating up airtime on every single news outlet. Here’s the skinny (courtesy this blog): 

  • In February 2019 Alex Murdaugh’s son, Paul, was intoxicated and involved in a boat accident that claimed the life of a young woman named Mallory Beach. This accident set off an incredible series of events and revelations that shone light on decades and generations of corrupt power in the LowCountry of South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, Mallory’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs, among others. It has been revealed that Alex Murdaugh tried to influence the other parties involved in the accident as well as the investigation into the accident.
  • Two years later, in June 2021, Alex Murdaugh found his wife and son, Maggie and Paul, murdered on the grounds of their hunting lodge, Moselle, in Colleton County, South Carolina. 
  • In September that same year Alex called 911 claiming that he had a flat tire on a back country road, and someone stopped and shot him. It was later revealed, by admission from Alex himself, that it was coordinated so that Alex could appear murdered in order for his older/surviving son to collect an insurance policy. 
  • In November of the same year Alex was indicted on 19 financial crimes, with 99 charges,  including fraud and embezzlement. It was discovered that he had stolen millions of dollars from his clients, his law firm, financial institutions, and those closest to him. Others are going down with him, but we won’t go down the rabbit hole.
  • In the summer of 2022 Alex Murdaugh was charged with the murder of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh after high velocity blood splatter was found on his clothing from the night of the slayings. 

Now we are sitting through “the trial of the century” in South Carolina. It’s being live-broadcasted on CourtTV (link) and the best reporting on the whole saga has been done by Mandy Matney on The Murdaugh Murders Podcast (link). Netflix already has a docuseries on it (link). Matney’s investigative reporting fount a home at FITS News, an online Palmetto State news outlet. They’re still on the case with Matney and Liz Farrell and Will Folks lending their assistance (link).

So, now you know what you need to know to understand the basics of the story and have all the links to learn more if that’s your thing. But our thing is the storytelling piece and so we’re here to talk about this in context of:

  • Genre – legal thriller? Legal procedural?
  • Character – wealth and privilege fall-from-grace?
  • Setting – small town corruption? A family so ensconced in a particular region that it seems untouchable?
  • Moral / Theme – is this about corruption? Narcissism? Breeding – both in lineage terms and in festering sores of dirty deeds?

Segment 2

What’s the appeal of the legal story? When did you first encounter them or become aware of them?

  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) – Atticus Finch, defense attorney
  • John Grisham, A Time to Kill (1989) – Jake Brgance, the defense attorney MC
  • Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) – Mickey Haller (main character)
    • Mickey Haller is a Lincoln Lawyer, a criminal defense attorney who operates out of the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car, traveling between the far-flung courthouses of Los Angeles to defend clients of every kind. Bikers, con artists, drunk drivers, drug dealers — they’re all on Mickey Haller’s client list. For him, the law is rarely about guilt or innocence, it’s about negotiation and manipulation. 

According to Piper Punches on this blog, one appeal is the characters themselves, the conflict and turmoil that erupts during these legal entanglements:

“Novels like William Landay’s Defending Jacob and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill are rich with legal prose and courtroom procedure, but they’re also stories about personal conflict and family trauma. Defending Jacob is about a prosecuting attorney whose son is accused of murdering a classmate and the little, day-to-day choices we as parents make that color the innocent guilty. A Time to Kill asks readers to consider how they would respond if their 10-year-old daughter was raped. These are stories that ask the reader to put themselves into the shoes of the criminal, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge, the jury, and the families of the accused and convicted.”

Segment 3

The same blog admits to speeding up the legal procedural, though, because that’s actually pretty boring. So what’s real and what’s fake in these thrillers? Well, they’re all fiction, so presumably they’re all fake. But how much “gotcha!” do readers play with the legal genre? We know cops love making fund of cop shows for getting shit wrong and historical fiction buffs will hiss and spit when things are historically sus.

So how much legal genre stuff has to be accurate? This blog attempts to sort it out and reminds us of a few fantastic stories we didn’t cover in Segment 1:

  • Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent (1986) – about a married man’s obsession with a woman who is not his wife; “The novel’s present tense puts the reader firmly in the mind of narrator Rusty Sabich, a married prosecuting attorney whose affair with a colleague comes back to haunt him after she is brutally raped and murdered.”
  • John Lescroart, Dead Irish (1989) – about a cop/attorney-turned-bartender, Dismas Hardy, forced back into the world of investigation, arrest, and prosecution after the death of Eddie Cochran (the descriptions don’t tell us who Eddie was to Dismas which pretty much sucks but oh well). Fifteen books later, Dismas is still Lescroart’s muse.

And these films:

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)  starring James Stewart

12 Angry Men (1957) starring Henry Fonda

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) with Marlene Dietrich

What has to be accurate?

What can be fudged/dramatized?

As the blog notes, Defending Jacob isn’t about the law, it’s about family. And A Time to Kill is about racism. So in those contexts, how accurate does the legal procedural stuff need to be?

There’s a kind of natural stakes here – We want the truth and what happens if we don’t get it? And what happens if we do?

Segment 4

So how do you do it? Well, this blog gives us the five required elements:

  1. A Diabolical Villain. …
  2. A Flawed, But Likable, Protagonist. …
  3. Raising the Stakes. …
  4. A Ticking Clock. …
  5. A Shocking Twist (Beware of Spoilers!) – easier said than

And this Writer’s Digest resource offers advice from a real attorney (even though a lot of our authors Turow, Grisham, are themselves attorneys):

  • Focus on authenticity – adhere to legal rules and evidentiary rules; make a realistic investigation and keep the corruption to the usual or expected amount – i.e. not all defense attorneys are soulless and cops rarely lie intentionally
  • Compose multifaceted criminals – find the vein of humanity even in your vilest character – remember he thinks he’s the hero of this story, he has incentives and intentions and ambitions, use them – not inherent evil – as his motivation
  • Review the impact of the media – you must address the presence of so.much.information via social media, 24-hour news, etc. Judges and prosecutors are under pressure when it’s a high-profile case; courtrooms become studios and jobs become roles. 

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