‘So what is a legal thriller?’ she asks. ‘Some sort of drug?’
‘No, of course not,’ I say. ‘Though they can be quite addictive, I suppose. A legal thriller is a book – a sort of crime novel.’
‘So why not call it a crime novel then, and have done with it? At least then, I’d know what you were talking about.’ This woman, Angela, specialises in nit-picking awkward questions. I can never make up my mind whether she’s being deliberately annoying, or if she really wants to know. Anyway, this time I decided to humour her.
‘A legal thriller is a sort of crime novel in which the main characters are lawyers. That makes it different – and sort of special.’
‘I don’t get it. Lawyers are people too; they can even be criminals. What’s the difference?’
‘Well, think of your ordinary crime novel. It’s a detective story really. The main characters are either criminals, or the police, right? There may be lots of other characters but those two are the main types. With me so far?’
‘Yes, I suppose …’ She has this irritating frown, Angela – you can see it crossing her forehead, like a cloud on a sunny day, bringing her eyebrows together. I can feel the wheels turning in her skull, and a ‘but’ coming on. But this time I’m too quick.
‘So in your basic crime novel a crime has been committed and it’s the detective’s job to solve it, ok? Which he or she does with varying degrees of skill. And at the end of the story, the crime is solved. The brilliant detective confronts the criminal with a mass of evidence, which proves conclusively who did it, how and why. And very often the criminal owns up and confesses. That’s it – end of story – problem solved.’
‘Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, you mean?’
‘Exactly. Or a thousand other detectives. Very popular type of book, very satisfying.’
‘So why don’t you write stories like that?’
‘Because … I don’t know. I’m stupid, I guess.’
‘You said it. Not me.’ She has this smug grin which really gets under my skin. I don’t think this woman has ever written a story in her life. But she loves picking holes in mine. Maybe I should take it as a form of flattery. After all, she is interested.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘Do you really trust the police?’ I know this will get to her. She doesn’t trust anybody. Not even herself, I think sometimes. Maybe I’ll explore that idea, one day.
‘No …’ she agrees reluctantly.
‘Have you ever met a detective as smart as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple?’
‘Obviously not. The one who came out when my house burgled was pretty dim, actually. He wasn’t even going to take fingerprints until I said …’
‘Exactly.’ I cut her off smartly. I know this woman. A story like that can go on for hours, once she gets started. She can keep on talking even if I leave the room. I’ve seen it happen.
‘So what’s missing in a normal crime novel is the trial, the courtroom drama, the lawyers. That’s what makes a legal thriller different, see? In real life, after all, the story doesn’t end when the police make an arrest – they have to present their evidence in court. And the detective doesn’t just stand in front of the fireplace, looking smug, like Poirot – he has to go into the witness box to be cross-examined by the defence lawyer, whose job is to test that evidence, and see if it proves what he claims it does. ‘
‘To pick holes in it, you mean. To argue black is white and let the guilty go free.’
‘Well, sometimes yes .’ I wonder if Angela ever thought of becoming a lawyer. She has the right kind of cussed temperament, certainly. ‘So to put it simply, a legal thriller is a crime novel with a whole extra dimension – the courtroom drama where the evidence is tested and argued over by the lawyers, the jury and the judge. And all of these people can be characters in the story too – some good, some bad. Lawyers are supposed to be honest, but – just like the police – not always. ‘
‘So a legal thriller is a crime novel with lawyers and a trial at the heart of the story?’
‘That’s one way of putting it, yes.’
‘Ok. So who writes this type of books?’
‘Well, John Grisham, obviously. Surely you’ve heard of him? And Scott Turow, Michael Connelly. Very famous writers.’
‘All American.’ She sighs. Angela is horribly prejudiced. I’m really sorry about this. It’s one of her worst qualities. But there it is. I told you she was awkward. ‘Aren’t there any British authors who write legal thrillers too?’
I pretend to think about this. It’s the question I was hoping she would ask all along, of course. But now the moment’s come I feel shy.
‘Well, there’s a guy called John Burton. He’s a QC so he knows a lot about the law. Lots of accurate courtroom drama.’
‘Ok. Anyone else?’
‘Well, yes. There’s me.’
I wish she wouldn’t laugh like that. It looks bad. But then she stops. Is that a friendly smile after all? A hint of kindness?
‘Well,’ I say in a small voice. ‘You could start with A Game of Proof. If you’re interested, that is. It’s not bad.’
We’re very British, you understand. We don’t blow our own trumpets. At least, not very loud. Just quietly, like this.
‘Not bad, you say? I won’t be wasting my time?’
‘I don’t think so. It’s got a few decent reviews.’
Don’t I know it. This could be a serious test of our friendship. If we have one. I wish I hadn’t started now. Oh well.