Conflicted, flawed lawyers. Trials about twisted crimes. Ninth-hour evidence discoveries. Few things in American culture create as much tension as our legal system, which is why courtrooms, law offices, and even the Supreme Court can make perfect backdrops for thrillers.
The masters of the legal thriller—a genre that routinely tops the bestsellers lists—have been doing it for decades. But as you’ll find in our list, the 21st century has produced many of the best.
Here’s our newly updated list of the best legal thrillers this century.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
Mickey Haller—Bosch’s half-brother—is the Lincoln Lawyer, a criminal defense attorney who operates out of the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car while he’s being driven around Los Angeles.
When a Beverly Hills playboy is arrested for attacking a woman, he chooses Haller to defend him.
Mickey has his first high-paying client in years, but when someone close to him is killed, Haller’s quest for innocence leads him on a path that forces him to use every trick in his book save him from his truly evil client.
Sycamore Row by John Grisham
Three years after the events in A Time to Kill, Brigance is dragged into a Ford County, Mississippi, conflict just as riveting when Seth Hubbard, a wealthy man dying of lung cancer, leaves a new, handwritten will before hanging himself from a sycamore tree.
Hubbard has left most of his fortune to his maid, raising many questions that all lead to a patch of land once known as Sycamore Row.
Sycamore Row won the Harper Lee prize book award for legal fiction.
My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni
When the shallow grave of Crosswhite’s younger sister is discovered after decades, she finds evidence that exonerates the man convicted of her murder, Edmund House.
Though everyone involved in the small-town investigation and trial tries to stop her, she and local lawyer/love interest re-open the case and free House—which eventually leaves her fighting for her life in the same room her sister occupied before her death.
An Innocent Client by Scott Pratt
Defense lawyer Joe Dillard, who has become jaded over the years as he’s tried to balance his career against his conscience, wants to stop defending guilty clients.
But when a beautiful, mysterious girl is accused of killing a preacher, Dillard can’t resist defending a client who, for once, may be innocent.
While he does so, he deals with personal issues ranging from a felonious sister and a mother succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
Judge and Jury by James Patterson and Andrew Gross
Andie DeGrasse, an aspiring actress, and single mom, is not your typical juror.
Though she tries to get dismissed, DeGrasse is chosen as juror 11 in a landmark trial against a notorious mob boss known as The Electrician.
As the jury is about to reach a verdict, the Electrician makes a devastating, unpredictable move that leaves the entire nation is reeling and Andie’s world shattered.
The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
Haller has fallen on tough times and is taking on foreclosure defense. When one of those clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of killing the banker she blames for taking away her home, Mickey puts his team into high gear.
Though she seems guilty at first, Haller learns Trammel’s victim had shady dealings, and Mickey gets assaulted.
After Haller mounts the defense of his life, the final twist comes in after the verdict.
Blood Defense by Marcia Clark
Ambitious Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Samantha Brinkman lands a high-profile double-murder case in which one of the victims is a beloved TV star and the defendant is a decorated veteran LAPD detective—the kind of media sensation that will make her a celebrity criminal lawyer.
But when the secret at the case’s core breaks her personally, Sam discovers her client is a manipulative sociopath.
Corrupted by Lisa Scottoline
In this installment, firm founder Bennie Rosato faces down an old case.
Bennie took on client Jason Leftavick thirteen years ago.
She couldn’t free the twelve-year-old from juvenile detention, and his adult life hasn’t been any easier.
When Jason is accused of murdering an old bully from juvie, Bennie is compelled to represent him—even though she no longer tries murder cases—and will face down the darkest period of her life.
The Last Juror by John Grisham
This read is less thrilling than the Jake Brigance novels, but the atmosphere and yarn Grisham spins is superb.
When The Ford County Times went bankrupt in 1970, the weekly was picked up by young college dropout Willie Traynor.
But its bleak future turned around when a member of the infamous Padgitt family raped and murdered a young mother, and the paper reported the grim details.
Danny Padgitt is convicted and sentenced to life, but he only does nine years—followed by retribution against those who put him away.
An Invisible Client by Victor Methos
Money is the only goal for high-powered personal injury attorney Noah Byron.
But, as a favor to his ex-wife, he meets with the mother of Joel, who was poisoned by bad children’s medicine.
The evidence leaves back to Big Pharma, and Byron is pitted against a powerful corporation while befriending 12-year-old Joel.
Noah fights to discover the truth and get justice—no matter the cost.
Justice Redeemed by Scott Pratt
Street makes a name for himself rooting out corruption in the district attorney’s office, but two years later he finds himself accused of murder.
After Jalen Jordan retained Street for a traffic violation, evidence links Jordan to two dead boys.
Jordan threatened to kill Street’s son to keep him in line.
Then Jordan’s body is found.
When Street’s put on trial for the death, Street must escape the enemy he made in the DAs office is out for revenge.
The 7th Canon, Robert Dugoni
A teenage street hustler has been murdered in a San Francisco shelter for boys, and the priest who runs the Tenderloin-district home is accused.
But Father Thomas Martin maintains his innocence despite evidence of the murder, and worse.
Attorney Peter Donley stands with him.
Donley is about to take his dream job at a bigger firm, but he puts his future on the line while he battles the DA and a detective to expose pure evil.
Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins
Secret Service agent Joseph Reeder heroically took a bullet for a president, but he’s been speaking out against that president for stacking the SCOTUS with ultra-conservative judges.
He’s paired with FBI agent Patti Rogers on a task force to investigate the death of Justice Henry Venter.
Reeder discovers the death was murder and not a robbery-gone-wrong, and soon the pair realizes it’s a conspiracy to replace the conservative judges with liberals—one that will also endanger Reeder’s family.
Innocent by Scott Turow
His wife has died in her bed of what appear to be natural causes, but Rusty’s old nemesis, acting prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto, is out for revenge after Rusty beat him decades earlier.
Rusty kept his wife’s death a secret for nearly a day, perhaps allowing poison to clear, and giving Tommy and his deputy cause to investigate.
The Whistler by John Grisham
Lacy Stoltz investigates for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct.
When she catches a corruption case involving a disbarred lawyer who’s practicing under a new identity, he offers up a client who can blow the whistle on a judge involved in the biggest racket in the U.S. history.
The judge was involved in a crooked casino and gets a cut of the profits every month.
But the deeper Stoltz investigates, the deadlier the case becomes.
Solomon vs. Lord by Paul Levine
Rule-follower Victoria Lord meets rebel Steve Solomon, and the possibilities range from the jailhouse to the bedroom.
When the Key West School of Law graduate gets the straight-laced Yale grad fired from her job in the DA’s office, they find themselves working together in the hottest case in Miami when former figure skater Katrina Barksdale is charged with killing her rich husband.
The Girl in Cell 49B by Dorian Box
A groundbreaking, nail-biting and wondrous legal thriller.
In Dorian Box’s The Hiding Girl, 12-year-old Emily Calby survived a home invasion and became an unlikely vigilante. The Girl in Cell 49B finds Emily on her 16th birthday. She’s on a bus in the Ozarks where she has been living for the past three years with her mentor, ex-gang member Lucas Jackson.
Her birthday present from Lucas? A 9mm handgun. Her freedom ends when she pulls the gun on an abusive biker at a gas station.
Emily finds herself in a hellish juvenile detention center facing charges for felony assault and illegal gun possession. With both parents dead, and Lucas her illegal guardian, she is essentially alone. But when fingerprints reveal her true identity, her crimes in Arkansas are the least of her worries. She is extradited to Louisiana to face murder charges.
To Emily’s surprise, the prosecution is able to present significant surveillance footage that doesn’t bode well for her case. Box pairs her with public defender Paula Dunwoody, who is perpetually hamstrung by poor health and a lack of resources. As Emily endures one disappointment after another, she comes to grips with the stark reality that she will have to save herself.
She arranges to be assigned to work in the prison library. She makes just eighteen cents an hour, but in the process she finds a law library, where she begins arming herself with knowledge that will soon become essential.
Throughout the novel, and especially in the most climactic courtroom scenes, Box manages to straddle the line between dark intensity and humor in this most unusual legal thriller. Emily’s wry humor is ever present, but even in its most audacious moments, The Girl in Cell 49B is always believable.
Along the way, numerous storylines regarding Emily’s relationships with those inside and outside the prison are essential to her character arc. But Emily’s plight to use the law to defend herself is what makes the novel both rare and truly memorable.
Presumption of Guilt by Marti Green
Attorney Dani Trumball, who specializes in defending the wrongfully imprisoned at the Help Innocent Prisoners Project, takes on the case of Molly Singer—who was convicted of murdering her parents as a teenager a dozen years ago.
A series of anonymous letters are claiming her innocence and caught up in a deadly conspiracy, and Dani is pushed to the edge while trying to prove Molly’s innocence.
The Trial Lawyer by John Ellsworth
A legal thriller that has everything genre fans could ask for, the ninth installment of Ellsworth’s Thaddeus Murfee Series finds the defense attorney taking the case of an unlikely client—District Attorney Killen Erwin, who is charged with the negligent homicide of a passenger after he wrecked his truck while driving drunk.
Immediately before the crash, Erwin had caused a scene at a local bar where his wife, Mary Roberta, was openly seducing another man.
But it’s not as simple as it seems.
Erwin blacked out, his passenger offered to drive, and a mysterious third person was seen fleeing the scene of the crime.
And when Thaddeus is ambushed and falls deathly ill, a team of doctors struggles to keep him alive to finish the case.
The Amendment Killer by Ronald S. Barak
Thomas T. Thomas III stalks Supreme Court Justice Arnold Hirschfeld’s granddaughter, eleven-year-old diabetic Cassie Webber who leads a privileged life, including door-to-door transportation to school by her doting parents and twice-a-day private golf lessons.
But Thomas doesn’t demand money.
He wants to sway Hirschfeld’s critical vote on the Supreme Court’s determination of the validity of the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would criminalize abuse of political power.
And if he doesn’t comply, Thomas will deny the diabetic youngster the insulin she needs to live.
The Watching by Michael Donovan
Chock full of psychological suspense, and gloriously infused with dread throughout, The Watching is a must for legal thriller fans.
London criminal defense attorney Kate Walker has plenty of reasons to be paranoid. Her clientele is packed with repeat offenders who, despite Kate’s astonishingly good track record, are rarely grateful for her efforts. In some cases, they are openly menacing.
As Walker’s roster of “crazy clients” grows, she muses that her office might need a security door. But it’s soon clear that home security is the problem. Late night calls, an inexplicably broken light bulb, a thermostat set out of her normal range, a bed that looks like someone has been in it.
Does she have a stalker, or is she simply imagining it all?
State vs. Lassiter by Paul Levine
Funny and thrilling, the ninth novel in Levine’s award-winning Jake Lassiter series finds the former linebacker investigating his banker—and lover—for money that’s gone missing from trust accounts of his clients.
But the banker, Pamela Baylins, accuses Jake of skimming funds and threatens to report him to the State Attorney.
A few hours later, Pamela is dead, and all the evidence points to Jake.
He’s charged with murder and must fight for his freedom.
Rick Treon is a former journalist who now writes mystery thrillers. His debut, Deep Background, is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook. Visit ricktreon.com to learn more about him and his work.