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Granted, you shouldn’t judge a book by its movie potential. But when the genre is mystery, “I can’t see the scenes” can be a serious literary criticism. On the page or on the screen, a good mystery builds, revelation by revelation, to a surprising but inevitable climax. In the brief or before the jury, a strong legal case also builds, piece by piece. That crime-courtroom connection — plus the tantalizing examples of John Grisham, Linda Fairstein, Richard North Patterson, Lisa Scottoline, etc. — may be why so many lawyers are trying to draft fictional thrills. But mystery isn’t easy, even for experienced writers of nonfiction. Each of these three books represents a first foray into the trials and tribulations of plot construction for its lawyer-author. One could be cast tomorrow. One cries out for an experienced screenwriter to delete characters and superfluous scenes. And one would only hit the silver screen as an “inspired by” creation. TRIUMPH OF THE WORD That last judgment would probably come as no surprise to the author of The War of Art. Anybody who mentions Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Egon Schiele, Maecenas, and Calouste Gulbenkian in the first chapter is surely not striving to write The Firm, take 2. It’s hard to know much more about the author’s intentions because “Philip Blackpeat” is a pseudonym. The anonymous writer is described as a lawyer, living in Washington, D.C. And unless he’s a glutton for research, he knew a fair amount about Pablo Picasso and Marcel Proust before he put fingers to keyboard. What’s most enjoyable about The War of Art is that wealth of erudition on display. At the request of his mysterious client, our hero, another D.C. lawyer, named Philip Melanchthon, launches himself on a hush-hush investigation through 20th-century art, literature, and history. Melanchthon’s thoughts travel down innumerable side roads by multiple oblique references. Don’t skim. From the first statement (“If art were revolutionary, the police would stop it.”) to the last (“She’s nowhere to be found in Tribeca. So try her in Gomorrah.”), what’s said matters. If readers enjoy Melanchthon’s company, they can sit back and let the monologue flow. But the operative verb here is “sit,” and that’s why the book is unfilmable. The War of Art is one meeting after another after another, in which people describe events that occurred somewhere else to someone else. E-mails are exchanged. Various kinds of documents are read. Paul the associate comes into Melanchthon’s office to receive his assignment. Paul comes in the next day to report on his research. Paul comes in the day after that to report further on his research. Melanchthon suggests another line of inquiry. Nobody peers through a darkened window or ducks into a seedy hotel or chases the albino down a rainy alley. The apparent big climax consists of Melanchthon sitting in a Tysons Corner, Va., office, listening to a key conspirator explain the truth behind the lies behind the lies, all the way from Page 81 to Page 113. Which is about 25 percent of a 126-page story. At which point, it dawns on the reader: The trick to writing a thrilling tale of legal derring-do is not to accurately reflect legal work. OWNING THE STORY The author of Errors and Omissions gets that. Paul Goldstein, the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick professor of law at Stanford University, thinks creatively (in a Tom Cruise/Matt Damon sort of way) about what lawyers do. Michael Seeley is an alcoholic, deep in denial and teetering on the edge of disbarment, when his firm essentially gives him an ultimatum: Draft a favorable opinion letter for a major client in Los Angeles or don’t come ’round no more. The client, United Pictures, needs an opinion letter attesting that the copyright on characters appearing in the movie “Spykiller,” made 50 years ago, and in multiple, very profitable sequels is safely in the hands of the studio. The problem is, it isn’t. Years ago, Goldstein explains, the studios bought scripts rather casually, with little attention paid to long-term rights. Recent federal court decisions have called into question the studios’ actual ownership of those scripts. United Pictures is panicking. How far will it go to ensure the financing for the next “Spykiller” sequel? What’s the life of one stubborn old screenwriter worth? And does Seeley have enough integrity left to shake off the booze and the lawyerly pose, access his inner action hero, and hunt down the truth? Damn straight. In one smart, tricky, and thoroughly impressive debut, Goldstein has made all the clichés live again: A flawed yet sympathetic hero pushed to do things he never thought possible. A beautiful woman with unclear allegiances. A wily old warrior who knows where the bodies are buried because he helped bury them. A menacing stranger who anticipates the hero’s every move. Goons. Chases. Blood. Betrayal. Terrible secrets. A last chance for honor. And yet Goldstein never abandons the legal dilemma, either. The intellectual conceit holds up; getting the documents signed matters right up until the end. SCIENCE AND SERENDIPITY Unlike Goldstein, Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, struggles to integrate her legal specialty into the main thrust of her tale. Andrews clearly knows and loves the “serendipitous, seductive way that science proceeds.” But in her first thriller, Sequence, she barely touches on the legal, ethical, and technological questions being raised by genetic research. The heroine, Alexandra Blake, is a geneticist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C. She’s investigating the origins of the Spanish flu (her work nicely mirrors recent real-life advances in understanding that devastating epidemic). But the criminal investigation at the heart of Sequence makes astoundingly little use of her expertise. Blake is drawn into the hunt for a serial killer when her boss gets in a turf war with the FBI and decides to throw all of the AFIP’s resources into the fight. Painstakingly slowly, Blake and her colleagues begin to put the pieces together. This is the kind of book in which the main character — faced with a new piece of obviously critical, clearly probative, pretty-much-identifying-the-suspect evidence — thinks, Hmm, there’s something here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But the writing is sprightly enough to earn some reader forgiveness. What cold-cocks readers’ enjoyment are the multiple plot digressions. Alexandra Blake dates. She lobbies Congress for funding. She investigates the Spanish flu. She explores other professional opportunities with biotech investors. A great many pages are devoted to Blake’s full, rich life, but precious little of this has anything to do with catching the killer. This loose plotting and the lack of science are surprising because Andrews knows how to organize a book and explain complicated technology to a mass audience. She’s the author of 10 nonfiction works, including The Clone Age and Body Bazaar, and has sat down with Oprah more than once. But for some reason, Andrews never focuses the story in Sequence. (Reportedly, she has been signed to a multibook deal, which means she and her plots have time to improve.) If they do make Sequence into a movie — and a good Hollywood screenwriter could clean up a number of infelicities — Washingtonians should buy a ticket just to see if other stumbles make the final script. Will congressmen and senators still serve on the same committees? Will a politician from Amarillo still speak at an ACLU fund-raiser? Will people still make good time in D.C. rush-hour traffic? And, most astounding of all, will a woman get easy access to a Metro bathroom?
Elizabeth Engdahl is the national opinion editor at Legal Times. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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