The best crime novels for details of legal, intermittently legal, and definitely illegal professions

Who am I?

Before I wrote crime novels, I was a lawyer. Legal mysteries back then were mostly set in traditional firms, with just enough lawyering to set up final courtroom scenes. I preferred novels that showed more of the nitty-gritty, the conflicts, and temperaments peculiar to different workplaces. I’d been binging Dick Francis, with his deep dives into jobs connected to racing, and I wished there were books with his level of detail in settings I knew—students scrabbling to make law review, firebrand litigators in labor firms, double-crosses in corporate practice, the horrors of bank law retreats. When I finished Francis’s excellent Whip Hand, I decided to try writing one myself. 


I wrote...

The Good Fight: A Laura Di Palma Mystery

By Lia Matera,

Book cover of The Good Fight: A Laura Di Palma Mystery

What is my book about?

Litigator Laura Di Palma is on the verge of losing everything she's worked for and everyone she loves. Her significant other has disappeared from the hospital, and though she’d do anything to find him, there couldn't be a worse time for her to search. She can't abandon her client, an old friend from her days as a political activist. He’s accused of shooting his closest comrade, a coworker who turned out to be an FBI agent sent to entrap him. But the top partner at Laura’s firm is threatening to fire her if she doesn't drop the controversial case.

Fighting to keep her job, torn between helping her client and finding her lover, Laura must reconcile the activist she was with the lawyer she’s become. 

The books I picked & why

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Whip Hand

By Dick Francis,

Book cover of Whip Hand

Why this book?

What is it like to be a jockey? Dick Francis offers a master class in using workplace details to develop characters. Readers bond with his jockeys at a gallop (or sometimes when they’re under galloping hooves). Each book is a feast of information about a different related job. We see the power of stewards and bookies and the racing press, the schemes of fixers, the pride and agonies of owners and trainers, the grievances of lads mucking out stables. We learn about transporting horses, filming them, painting them, investing in them. In Whip Hand, Francis’s lean prose and fast pace establish his jockey-turned-detective's personality and backstory in a single page of prologue. The book holds a special place in my heart because it inspired me to try writing legal mysteries.

Whip Hand

By Dick Francis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Whip Hand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are two worlds in racing. Winning and losing. Private detective Sid Halley has gone from one to the other - fast. First his career as a jockey ended when he lost his hand in a fall. Then his wife said a cold good-bye. Now he's on the trail of thugs who crush losers. With vicious pleasure.

These are people who aim to win - at any price. There's a syndicate of owners with a sideline in violent kidnapping. And Trevor Deansgate, a bookmaker whose hatred of favourites goes one deathly step too far...

For the sake of his health,…


Ghostman

By Roger Hobbs,

Book cover of Ghostman

Why this book?

What is it like to be a thief? I picked up Ghostman after writer Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) joked on Facebook that the book taught her how to rob a casino. This exciting story does that and much more. The protagonist is forced to untangle a caper gone FUBAR and then disappear without a trace. Through multiple twists and backstabbings, readers learn the fine points of pulling off grand thefts and long cons, the tricks and trials of becoming a permanent “ghost.” The information is offered seamlessly, with no jarring breaks from action or characterization. In my opinion, there’s never been a better heist novel, though its sequel, Vanishing Games, comes close. (Sadly, Hobbs died when he was only 26, leaving behind no additional manuscripts.) 

Ghostman

By Roger Hobbs,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ghostman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Fast, hard and knowing: this is an amazing debut full of intrigue, tradecraft and suspense. Read it immediately!' Lee Child

________________

I make things disappear. It's what I do. This time I'm tidying up the loose ends after a casino heist gone bad. The loose ends being a million cash. But I only have 48 hours, and there's a guy out there who wants my head in a bag.

He'll have to find me first. They don't call me the Ghostman for nothing...

________________

'Brilliantly clever, gripping and action-packed. Utterly original and bound to become a big-budget movie.' SUNDAY MIRROR…


Billy Summers

By Stephen King,

Book cover of Billy Summers

Why this book?

What is it like to be a hitman? We learn all about it from Billy Summers, one of the most refreshing and engaging felons in crime fiction. Stephen King outshines even Elmore Leonard with a character whose kindness and natural sweetness balance an almost scary level of focus and professionalism. Through Billy, we see every nuance of pulling off a hit. Getting a clean shot at the man he’s hired to kill means waiting, possibly for weeks, in a building across from the courthouse. He tells neighbors there he’s renting the office there to minimize distractions while writing a book. To maintain his cover, he begins fictionalizing memories of his early life and military service. It’s the best depiction I’ve seen of how it feels to write a first novel. 

Billy Summers

By Stephen King,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Billy Summers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel

Why this book?

What is it like to be a spy? John le Carré spent decades working for the British Secret Intelligence Service. He offers readers true insider details about spycraft—the operational methods, the clashes, and turf wars, the choreography of secret missions and extra-legal actions, the consequences if they fail, the high toll on agents in the field. But more than anything, the story is built on fascinating characters, drawn with elegant prose and sterling dialogue. Among them is one of my favorites in any genre, the quietly brilliant George Smiley. If you’ve read the book and want more (or haven’t read it, though I think you’d love it), try the mini-series with Alec Guinness. It captures some of the novel’s magic. I can’t resist rewatching it every few years. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel

By John Le Carré,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of A Legacy of Spies.

The man he knew as "Control" is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the Circus. But George Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement-especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence. Relying only on his wits and a small, loyal cadre, Smiley recognizes the hand of Karla-his Moscow Centre nemesis-and sets a trap to catch the traitor.

The Oscar-nominated feature film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is directed by…

The Appeal

By Janice Hallett,

Book cover of The Appeal

Why this book?

What is it like to be a lawyer in the information age? Janice Hallett’s characters show us, in this update of the epistolary novel. Two lawyers are handed a sheaf of emails, text messages, police reports, press releases, and medical records by their firm’s top partner. He tells them that he wants fresh eyes on documents pertaining to a case he tried and may appeal. He won’t prejudice their reading of the material by explaining what the crime was or who committed it, much less what the court decided or why he might challenge the ruling. Along with the reader, the lawyers sift through documents that offer an intriguing look at the players, eventually revealing who did what. It’s an excellent puzzle with a modern twist on a time-honored structure.

The Appeal

By Janice Hallett,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Appeal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
Winner of the CWA New Blood Dagger Award

“[W]itty, original…a delight.” —The New York Times

Perfect for fans of Ruth Ware and Lisa Jewell, this international bestseller and “dazzlingly clever” (The Sunday Times, London) murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect.

The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Hayward and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and…

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