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“Their Word Is Law” by Stephen M. Murphy Berkley Books, 368 pages, $14.95 Stephen M. Murphy is a lawyer who likes to read novels about the law. Over the years, his avocation turned into a passion. After reading a novel by a lawyer that intrigued him, Murphy might call the lawyer-novelist, request an interview, then condense the words into a question-answer format for publication in the magazine of the San Francisco Bar Association. Now the 31 interviews have been collected, in alphabetical order by the last name of the lawyer-novelist, between book covers. Murphy, a San Francisco solo practitioner specializing in personal injury and plaintiffs’ employment law, conducted the first interview in 1988, with Scott Turow. Murphy had just finished reading Turow’s first novel, “Presumed Innocent,” and wanted to discuss it with the author. Knowing Turow had agreed to speak at a San Francisco gathering, Murphy called him at his Chicago law firm. Murphy said the San Francisco Bar Association magazine wanted to publish a Turow interview in conjunction with the speech. Turow said yes. The Turow interview was never meant to be the start of a second life for Murphy, but his second life became interviewing lawyers who published novels about the law. Murphy figured out quickly he would never lack for material. “I have been constantly amazed at the growth of legal fiction as well as the number of lawyers who have published novels,” Murphy writes. “In the early 1990s, I thought I knew of all the lawyer-authors. But on occasion I’d spend a free lunch hour browsing in the new fiction section of local bookstores, and pick out one or two new ones every time.” A careful reader, a skilled selector of interview subjects and an incisive questioner, Murphy has compiled a book that ought to interest not only lawyers who want to publish novels, but also anybody who would like insights into civil and criminal law. Here are examples of those insights. � William Bernhardt, a trial lawyer at a Tulsa, Okla., firm, and author of a dozen novels, answering Murphy’s question about lawyers writing novels that portray lawyers negatively: “I can understand lawyer-bashing in the world at large, but I don’t understand why other lawyers do it. … Criticism is so easy and so cheap. I’m more interested in trying to show people what it is lawyers really do. … Instead of just blanket cynicism, I’d rather say let’s figure out what could be changed, what could be improved.” � Jay Brandon, who has served as an assistant district attorney in San Antonio in Bexar County, Texas, answering Murphy’s question about composing courtroom scenes, which are rarely as dramatic as they appear to be on television: “One thing that has always bothered me about watching courtroom scenes, particularly television lawyer shows, is how much surprise there always is. If you have been a trial lawyer, you know that by the time it comes to trial, there should be very little in the way of surprise. I have always seen these shows where the defense lawyer still had investigators out investigating the case while the trial is going on, and that seems ludicrous to me.” � Linda Fairstein, a New York City sex crimes prosecutor, discussing Murphy’s observation that district attorneys in real life probably rarely show up at the crime scene, while those in novels routinely arrive with or even before the police: “The only time I was ever accidentally involved in a shootout was because I was riding in the back of a police car about 18 months after I had started in the [Manhattan district attorney's] office. The police actually apprehended someone and the officer’s gun went off accidentally in the police car. I think it was because he was so nervous. … I was cowering on the floor of the backseat. The then-district attorney, the great Frank Hogan, called me in and said, ‘If you want to go to the police academy, go to the police academy. If you want to be a prosecutor, stay at your desk.’” Although the interviewees are all lawyers, the collection never lapses into boredom based on heterogeneity. Some of the authors wrote books before passing the bar exam, others practiced law for decades before writing a novel. Both genders are represented, as is the gay sexual orientation as well as the straight. Some practice primarily criminal law, others primarily civil law. Some set their plots in big cities, others in small towns. Some write in first person through the mind of the lawyer-protagonist, others in third person using the omniscient technique beloved by countless novelists. Robert K. Tanenbaum, a former New York City prosecutor transplanted to Beverly Hills, Calif., to run a private practice, understands Murphy’s fascination with novels about the law and the lawyers who create the worlds of those novels. Tanenbaum began writing nonfiction outside of his practice, but found it too limiting. After finishing his second nonfiction book, an account about bringing a psychosexual killer to justice, Tanenbaum tells Murphy, “I was going to novelize these stories because I really didn’t want to get involved in details, reportage, about people I had worked with. I just didn’t want to reveal the innermost secrets based upon my own observations of everybody. And so then I decided it would be good to create an environment based upon my own experiences, which is based upon the whole New York City district attorney scene, and create characters and story lines that would clearly reflect reality.” Long live that created reality, which educates and entertains when done by a master. Steve Weinberg reviews books regularly from his home in Columbia, Mo. He is working with the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., to study prosecutorial conduct and misconduct throughout the United States.

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