My last post set out that Gone Again by James Grippando was the winner of the 2017 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. This post provides my thoughts on which book from the shortlist should be the winner. On the shortlist were:
1.) Gone Again;
2.) Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult; and,
3.) Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
Among the criteria for determining the winner is the direction that Award is to go “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.
Gone Again is a classic death penalty case in which Jack Swyteck seeks to save Dylan Reeves from execution. While Reeves is a despicable person Swyteck comes to believe he is innocent of the murder of Sashi Burgette.
Complicating the process is that Sashi and her brother are international adopted children from Russia. A compelling subplot to the book involves the legal and ethical issues with international adoptions gone badly. I had never heard of rehoming before reading the book.
Swyteck pursues a writ of habeas corpus with a more novel claim than most such applications - there is evidence Sashi is still alive.
Gone Again does a good job of showing lawyers have an important role in society of defending the damned and challenging wrongful convictions.
It does not really show a lawyer effecting change. There were no arguments involving the death penalty that might bring about change beyond showing the risk of executing the innocent.
It was a book about a good lawyer, Swyteck, doing his job.
In Small Great Things the defence lawyer, Kennedy, defends a black nurse, Ruth Jefferson, charged with murdering the newborn son of a pair of white supremacists.
Race, though Kennedy wants to avoid any mention, is going to be at the heart of the trial when the parents insisted on a note being put on the chart that no African Americans could care for their child and the baby dies while under Jefferson's care.
The book contains a powerful examination of America's current race relations but once again there is little in Kennedy's role that shows a lawyer effecting change.
Kennedy comes to realize her blind spots as a white American but her skillful defence is not about changing race relations. It raises consciousness but is not effecting change.
Last Days of Night is perhaps the best of the group at showing the role of lawyers. In the great war over the light bulb between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse the book shows the important role lawyers have in determining who invented rather than improved or adapted inventions. Patent law provides a method of registration that allows inventors prove their inventions.
While the book set in the late 1880's the principles of patent law have already been well established. Young Paul Cravath is not really effecting change in society.
What Cravath does do in the book is to establish the structure of the modern team lawyer approach to complex commercial litigation. He sets a quartet of young law students to weeks and months of intensive document review and legal research. Any young lawyer in the litigation department of a big law firm will be familiar with that approach to litigation.
In examining the books concerning the role and power of lawyers none of the books was strong on the issue of the power of lawyers. All were strong on the role of lawyers in society.
Last Days of Night, as set out above, did show an innovative lawyer with regard to the structure of litigation teams. For this reason and, far more importantly for me, because I thought it the best book I have read this year I think Last Days of Night should have won the Award.
2017 did have the strongest trio of books on the shortlist for the years I have been reading the books on the shortlist. There was not a weak entry this year.
- Bill Selnes
- Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
- I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.