One of my favorite parts about books centered around criminal trials is that they often involve layered characters with troubled pasts whose worlds collide in unexpected ways. Truth is not always as clear and concise as we may want it to be, leaving readers to actively imbue the text with their own interpretations. Whether by happenstance or deliberate choice, the protagonists in this list of fiction and nonfiction books find themselves aiding defendants or pleading their innocence, unearthing crimes or helping to bury them, or demanding closer looks at the justice system and who it benefits.
Emotional stakes are high in this legal thriller that examines a makeshift community that has grown around a new treatment option for sick children. At the story’s center are the woman and child who lost their lives in the medical study during a fire caused by an explosion as they sat inside their hyperbaric chambers for twice daily sessions. On trial is the victim’s own mother, while the family running the study remains anxious and optimistically cautious that they’ve avoided any blame. The final hours before the tragedy are replayed as we hear from multiple characters’ points of view, discovering secrets that may or may not directly relate to the deaths. A constant push and pull of who to trust and how each piece connects make for great book club discussion points; get ready to be thinking about this one for a long time.
A good case means hearing all sides of a story; ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL sets readers up perfectly by putting us into the three main characters’ heads. The book starts with Kate, a criminal barrister who has recently lost a tricky case. She’s all too aware that in a courtroom, there are blurred lines between truth and winning; a jury must be relied on to interpret facts and arguments, and they don’t always get it right. Looking for a new case, Kate turns to allegations involving a government minister, James, and a parliamentary researcher, Olivia. James promises his wife, Sophie, that the affair meant nothing, a silly mistake. Sophie agrees to support him, though from James’s earliest chapters, we know there have been other women. Soon, however, the accusations become more serious, and dark pasts begin to emerge.
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“A nuanced story line perfectly in tune with our #metoo times.” —People, Book of the Week
“One of the season’s most buzzed-about thrillers.” —Bookish
“A strong choice for book clubs. Former political correspondent Vaughan makes an impressive debut with this savvy, propulsive courtroom drama.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Vaughan offers gripping insight into a political scandal’s hidden machinations and the tension between justice and privilege…Absorbing, polished.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Skillfully interweaving the story of the unfolding scandal, Vaughan gradually reveals just how shockingly high the stakes are…Sinewy…engrossing, twist-filled.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Some people’s secrets are darker than others.
Sophie Whitehouse has a lovely home, two adorable children, and a handsome, successful husband. In other words, she has the “perfect” life. But everything changes the night her husband James comes home and confesses an indiscretion. Suddenly, her neat, ordered world is turned upside down. Did she ever really know the man she married?
And, as it turns out, James’s revelation is just the tip of the iceberg. He stands accused of a terrible crime. But, the truth is even more shocking than anyone ever could have thought. Is James the guilty perpetrator or an innocent victim of a toxic agenda?
In this riveting story of love, revenge, and deception, no one’s motives are pure, but some people’s secrets are much darker than others.
Law student Alexandria has a summer internship that happens to coincide with the end of a retrial for convicted murderer Ricky Langley. Viewing an old confessional tape, Alexandria finds herself digging deeper into Ricky’s past, which calls up memories and emotions from her own past. If the “A Murder and a Memoir” subtitle weren’t compelling enough, I can assure you this is like nothing you’ve ever read before. The writing is beautiful; death and abuses are disturbing yet uniquely captured, and the narrative style held me transfixed. More than anything, Alexandria tries to understand choices and truths—both in her own family’s actions and secrets, and in the face of Ricky’s terrible crime.
The book opens on Day 1 at 7:45 AM; the time stamp structure immediately evokes suspense and dread, the understanding that every second will count. One seemingly healthy whale is discovered on a Bahamas beach. At first, Ken at the Earthwatch Institute, a facility funded to survey beached whales, thinks it must be an anomaly. He races to action, calling for volunteers to help get the whale back in the water only to watch it turn back to shore. Suddenly he’s taking calls about more beached whales on other parts of the island, an unprecedented situation. The only possible cause he can decipher is the navy, who has an underwater testing range close by. What unfolds is the “largest multispecies whale stranding ever recorded.” This nonfiction book reads like a thriller of devastating proportions and is a call to action for environmentalists and advocates.
Winner of the 2015 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award: “Horwitz’s dogged reporting…combined with crisp, cinematic writing, produces a powerful narrative…. He has written a book that is instructive and passionate and deserving a wide audience” (PEN Award Citation).
Six years in the making, War of the Whales is the “gripping detective tale” (Publishers Weekly) of a crusading attorney, Joel Reynolds, who stumbles on one of the US Navy’s best-kept secrets: a submarine detection system that floods entire ocean basins with high-intensity sound—and drives whales onto beaches. As Joel Reynolds launches a legal fight to expose and challenge the Navy program, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses a mysterious mass stranding of whales near his research station in the Bahamas. Investigating this calamity, Balcomb is forced to choose between his conscience and an oath of secrecy he swore to the Navy in his youth.
“War of the Whales reads like the best investigative journalism, with cinematic scenes of strandings and dramatic David-and-Goliath courtroom dramas as activists diligently hold the Navy accountable” (The Huffington Post). When Balcomb and Reynolds team up to expose the truth behind an epidemic of mass strandings, the stage is set for an epic battle that pits admirals against activists, rogue submarines against weaponized dolphins, and national security against the need to safeguard the ocean environment. “Strong and valuable” (The Washington Post), “brilliantly told” (Bob Woodward), author Joshua Horwitz combines the best of legal drama, natural history, and military intrigue to “raise serious questions about the unchecked use of secrecy by the military to advance its institutional power” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
Ellie has just won a big case; instead of celebrating the win, the moral implications and expectations for her future weigh on her. She retreats to Amish country, where she spent summers as a child with her cousin and his wife, Leda. Except her declaration to discontinue practicing law falls flat when the body of a newborn is found on Leda’s sister’s dairy farm, and her eighteen-year-old niece is the top suspect. What would drive someone to get rid of a baby? The unique stance and nuances surrounding the family’s community coupled with Ellie’s own feelings about motherhood make this a thought-provoking and emotional read.
Defense lawyer Jilly Truitt only agrees to speak to Vera as a favor to Vera’s husband, Joseph, a fellow lawyer. Accused of killing her dying mother, Vera has insisted on pleading not guilty even though everyone she’s consulted with is begging her to do otherwise. Suddenly Jilly finds herself drawn to the case despite her growing list of clients and obligations, and the fact that Joseph insists on bringing up her father, a man she had never interacted with until she’d unknowingly represented him in a recent case. Family is complicated, and not just for Vera. Who exactly is in denial, and what exactly can be saved? Complexities and secrets run abound as Jilly wades through one night in particular at the center of the case and learns the permeating effects of a single choice.
CityLine Book Club Pick for September
From the former Chief Justice of Canada and #1 bestselling author of Full Disclosure comes a taut new thriller starring tough-as-nails defense attorney Jilly Truitt in a murder case that makes her question her own truths.
When everyone is in denial, how do you find the truth?
Jilly Truitt has made a name for herself as one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the city. Where once she had to take just about any case to keep her firm afloat, now she has her pick—and she picks winners.
So when Joseph Quentin asks her to defend his wife, who has been charged with murdering her own mother in what the media are calling a mercy killing, every instinct tells Jilly to say no. Word on the street is that Vera Quentin is in denial, refusing to admit to the crime and take a lenient plea deal. Quentin is a lawyer’s lawyer, known as the Fixer in legal circles, and if he can’t help his wife, who can?
Against her better judgment, Jilly meets with Vera and reluctantly agrees to take on her case. Call it intuition, call it sympathy, but something about Vera makes Jilly believe she’s telling the truth. Now, she has to prove that in the courtroom against her former mentor turned opponent, prosecutor Cy Kenge—a man who has no qualms about bending the rules.
As the trial approaches, Jilly scrambles to find a crack in the case and stumbles across a dark truth hanging over the Quentin family. But is it enough to prove Vera’s innocence? Or is Jilly in denial herself?
Thrumming with tension, Denial is a riveting thriller about the lengths we will go to for the ones we love and the truths we hold dear.
Frannie, Dismas Hardy’s wife, reads the paper one morning to find that her client, Katie, has gone missing; as a marriage counselor, Frannie is oddly only seeing Katie for therapy and not her husband, Hal. When the case is escalated to homicide, Hal is at the center: a sheriff’s deputy, he knows the ins and outs of the law and his alibi is sketchy. At the time of Katie’s disappearance, their two small children were still asleep in their beds, and drops of blood were found in the kitchen. Desperate, Hal comes to Hardy to be his lawyer, who enlists former homicide detective Glitsky to help dig up clues. I love a good fast-paced tale that involves emerging narratives and sympathetic characters, and this delivers on all accounts.
From New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart, “the master of the legal thriller” (Chicago Sun-Times), comes this riveting suspense novel featuring fan-favorite Dismas Hardy and detective Abe Glitsky on the hunt for clues about a missing woman.
On the evening before Thanksgiving, Hal Chase, a guard in the San Francisco County Jail, drives to the airport to pick up his stepbrother for the weekend. When they return, Hal’s wife, Katie, has disappeared without a clue.
By the time Dismas Hardy hears about this, Katie has been missing for five days and the original Missing Persons case has become a suspected homicide—with Hal as the prime suspect. And the lawyer he wants for his defense is none other than Hardy himself.
Hardy calls on his friend, former homicide detective Abe Glitsky, to look into the case, and there proves to be no shortage of possible suspects aside from Hal. As he probes further, Glitsky learns of an incident at the San Francisco jail, where Hal works—only one of many questionable inmate deaths that have taken place there. Then, as more clues surface, Hal is arrested and finds himself an inmate in the very jail where he used to work, a place full of secrets he knows all too well.
Against this backdrop of conspiracy and corruption, ambiguous motives and suspicious alibis, an obsessed Glitsky closes in on the elusive truth. As other deaths begin to pile up he realizes, perhaps too late, that the next victim might be himself.
The introduction begins by asking “Who is justice for?” a powerful question that the author feels has gone long unanswered. Serving as a Black female prosecutor, it became tough to situate herself in a system impacted by racism and injustices, trying to uphold laws and practices that didn’t support marginalized Black and Brown people. The fact that her first day on the job included seventy-three cases, all with Black defendants, weighed on her. “To understand what justice looks like,” she says, “we must know what injustice looks like.” The book reveals the complexities and often heartbreaking realities of her experiences, including a trial for an accused car thief whose victim turns out to have an active deportation warrant.
“A firsthand, eye-opening story of a prosecutor that exposes the devastating criminal punishment system. Laura Coates bleeds for justice on the page.” —Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist
When Laura Coates joined the Department of Justice as a prosecutor, she wanted to advocate for the most vulnerable among us. But she quickly realized that even with the best intentions, “the pursuit of justice creates injustice.”
Through Coates’s experiences, we see that no matter how fair you try to fight, being Black, a woman, and a mother are identities often at odds in the justice system. She and her colleagues face seemingly impossible situations as they teeter between what is right and what is just.
On the front lines of our legal system, Coates saw how Black communities are policed differently; Black cases are prosecuted differently; Black defendants are judged differently. How the court system seems to be the one place where minorities are overrepresented, an unrelenting parade of Black and Brown defendants in numbers that belie their percentage in the population and overfill American prisons. She also witnessed how others in the system either abused power or were abused by it—for example, when an undocumented witness was arrested by ICE, when a white colleague taught Coates how to unfairly interrogate a young Black defendant, or when a judge victim-blamed a young sexual assault survivor based on her courtroom attire.
Through these revelatory and captivating scenes from the courtroom, Laura Coates explores the tension between the idealism of the law and the reality of working within the parameters of our flawed legal system, exposing the chasm between what is right and what is lawful.
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