Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writing the Legal Thriller - by DOUGLAS CORLEONE

Please welcome Douglas Corleone to Suspense Novelist. I'm pleased beyond words to host him, and encourage you all to check out his work.

Douglas Corleone is the author of the Kevin Corvelli crime series published by St. Martin's Minotaur. His debut novel, One Man's Paradise, won the 2009 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. A former New York City criminal defense attorney, Douglas Corleone now resides in the Hawaiian Islands with his wife and son. Night on Fire is his second novel.

Writing the Legal Thriller

The dust jacket for my latest novel Night on Fire reads “A Kevin Corvelli Mystery.” Indeed, the story is a mystery. But it’s also a legal thriller. The protagonist Kevin Corvelli is a hotshot Honolulu criminal defense lawyer who is tasked with defending a stunning but troubled young newlywed accused of killing her husband and committing arson at a popular Hawaiian beach resort. Technically, Kevin’s goal is not to solve the mystery, but to do everything in his power to have his client acquitted, regardless of whether she’s guilty or innocent. It begs the question: how does a legal thriller differ from a traditional mystery, and what must a writer take into account when constructing a legal thriller?

Most legal thrillers feature an attorney protagonist. (There are exceptions, including David Ellis’s Edgar Award-winning debut Line of Vision, in which the accused, an investment banker, is the hero and narrator of the story.) Often the lawyer protagonist is a criminal defense attorney, which means, unlike a police detective, his duty isn’t to identify and capture the killer, but to defend his client, the accused, to the best of his ability. Fortunately for authors, finding the real killer is often the key to creating reasonable doubt. At least it is in fiction; in real life, a defense lawyer creates reasonable doubt by impeaching the prosecution’s witnesses and undermining physical and circumstantial evidence. As any decent defense lawyer will tell you, criminal trials are not about getting to the truth, but rather about what the prosecution can or cannot prove.

Legal thrillers often include courtroom drama. Which means an author must construct both sides of the case. The hero must therefore view clues much differently than he would in a traditional mystery. He must consider each fingerprint, each weapon, each witness statement, not only as a clue but as a piece of evidence. He must determine what to introduce at trial and what not to. And the writer, acting as judge, must decide what’s admissible at trial and what must be suppressed. The rigid rules of criminal procedure must be followed, creating obstacles for the hero that otherwise would not exist.

The verdict sometimes serves as the climax of the legal thriller. Other times, the climax occurs when the intrepid attorney finally confronts the real killer. In either case, the ending must be emotionally satisfying for the reader. That generally means that the good guys have prevailed, regardless of which side of the aisle they stood on for the duration of the story. But getting to that climax, the reader is often taken on a much different journey, as the lawyer makes questionable decisions, unsure of whether he is on the side of right or wrong. That internal moral conflict adds a dimension to legal thrillers that isn’t often found in traditional mysteries. And it is what I enjoy most about constructing Kevin Corvelli’s courtroom dramas.

Praise for One Man’s Paradise

“Fans of John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, and other legal thriller authors will enjoy this for the sheer pleasure of seeing a master defense attorney at work in the courtroom.”
---Library Journal

“This novel won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award, and it’s no wonder. Former defense lawyer Corleone has created a crafty and memorable character and placed him in a suspenseful and layered story. . . . A sequel to this fine debut would seem almost mandatory.”

Kevin Corvelli---a hotshot New York defense attorney who packed up his bags and hung his shingle in Hawaii to dodge the spotlight---is deep in his mai tais at a resort when an argument erupts down at the other end of the bar. It’s a pair of newlyweds, married that very day on the beach. And since Corvelli doesn’t do divorces, he all but dismisses the argument.

That’s at least until the fire breaks out later that night, and he barely escapes his hotel room. Most weren’t so lucky, including the new husband. His wife, Erin, becomes not only the police’s prime suspect for arson and murder but also Corvelli’s newest client, and she has a lot working against her, like motive and opportunity, not to mention a history of starting fires.

The heat gets turned all the way up in Douglas Corleone’s scorching legal thriller Night on Fire, his second following the MWA’s/MB First Crime Novel Competition winner, One Man’s Paradise.


  1. I am reading the book so quickly, because it is that intense and real~! Corvelli is so actively involved in the case, that it echoes the "old time doctor" making house calls, and showing a genuine interest for his patients~! I slowed down on the reading, because I long for the story to last, and not reach fruition~! After all, we probably won't be treated to another Corvelli mystery, until next year~!
    Corleone is a brilliant writer, filling the pages of his books with honesty, realism, and intrigue~! I really don't think That I can wait until next year, Mr. Corleone~! Kudos to you, yoiung man, for your well deserved success~!

  2. I like legal thrillers, and I enjoyed the post. Congratulations on your great reviews, Douglas.

  3. I like that tension, too--where there is no clear right or wrong. I'm excited to read this one!

  4. Thank you so much for being here, Douglas. I know for sure we lost two comments. One from L.J. Sellers and another from Jenny Milchman.

    Blogger chose a fine time to act up. But I know, in spite of any minor glitches along the way, you will be a success.

    Thanks again for being on Suspense Novelist.