The best legal novels that you can't put down

Who am I?

Garrett Epps is the author of two published novels and five works of non-fiction about the U.S. Constitution. He graduated from Duke Law School in 1991; since then he has taught Constitutional Law at the American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke University, and the University of Oregon. For ten years he was Supreme Court Correspondent for The Atlantic, and covered from close up cases involving the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. He is now Legal Affairs Editor of The Washington Monthly, and at work on a novel about crime and justice during the years of Southern segregation. 


I wrote...

Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

By Garrett Epps,

Book cover of Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

What is my book about?

The Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, changed the Constitution, and America, in more ways than we can count. It is the Amendment’s Citizenship Clause that made birthright citizenship part of our fundamental law; the Equal Protection Clause that doomed school segregation and other racist laws; the Due Process Clause that guarantees the right to use contraceptives, choose abortion, or marry a partner of either sex.

The story of that Amendment’s Framing in 1866 is often referred to but seldom told. Democracy Reborn is the only current one-volume history of how the Amendment came to be. The story memorably involves such figures as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, Andrew Johnson, and Walt Whitman.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bleak House

Garrett Epps Why did I love this book?

The lawyers and clerks who inhabit this book are recognizable types around any courthouse today. Bleak House is one of the best novels ever written in English, funny, cheerful, and tragic by turns. It also features the first detective character in English fiction. “The one great principle of the English law,” Dickens writes, “is to make business for itself.”

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Esther, at fourteen, has never known love. Determined to live well, earn some love and overcome the shadow of her birth, she takes her first steps into an unknown world. A family curse, a manipulating lawyer, poverty and secrets threaten to destroy Esther's world. Are the walls of Bleak House strong enough to protect her and her new friends from such powerful forces? The reader will be caught up in an unfolding mystery, full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is: Who is Nemo?


Book cover of The Trial

Garrett Epps Why did I love this book?

“Someone must have slandered Josef K.,” the story begins, “for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” The reader never learns who slandered K, or what he is charged with—but, over the course of a year, this respectable banker is stripped of his liberty, his dignity, and even his will. The book contains “Before the Law,” the most famous legal fable ever written, about a man who waits a lifetime at the doorway of the law—then dies without being admitted. As he dies, he learns that the doorway he has waited at was created especially for him.

By Franz Kafka,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested." From its gripping first sentence onward, this novel exemplifies the term ""Kafkaesque." Its darkly humorous narrative recounts a bank clerk's entrapment — based on an undisclosed charge — in a maze of nonsensical rules and bureaucratic roadblocks.
Written in 1914 and published posthumously in 1925, Kafka's engrossing parable about the human condition plunges an isolated individual into an impersonal, illogical system. Josef K.'s ordeals raise provocative, ever-relevant issues related to the role of government and the nature of…


Book cover of The Just and the Unjust

Garrett Epps Why did I love this book?

This novel is in many ways the precise opposite of a “courtroom thriller.” The murder trial depicted is not upended by surprise evidence, witnesses do not blurt out confessions, and the outside world takes little notice of what is transpiring in the courtroom. But prosecutor Abner Coates is a memorable portrait of a man for whom the law has become an entire world. A powerful courtroom moment punctures Abner’s professional irony, when he imagines looking at himself through the eyes of the defendants, and he realizes that despite his good nature and intentions, to them he is a savage enemy trying to kill them.

By James Gould Cozzens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Just and the Unjust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Just and the Unjust, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Gould Cozzens examines the ways in which freedom under the law operates in a democracy when a murder trial dominates the life of a small town.


Book cover of The Schirmer Inheritance

Garrett Epps Why did I love this book?

A World War II bomber pilot returns home thoroughly determined to have no more excitement in his life. He settles down in a quiet wills-and-trusts practice. In a dusty file about an unclaimed estate, he sees that a missing heir may be living in Europe. Searching for this heir, he is pulled into Cold War politics, kidnaped, and dragged into Communist Albania, where his fate becomes an international incident. The law overtakes George in a thoroughly believable way; it is an example of why readers fear the law, which may at any moment demand that we sacrifice our comfort, our place in society, and even our very lives.

By Eric Ambler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A masterful contribution to the literature of international dirty work." - The New Yorker
George Cary, former WWII bomber pilot and newly minted lawyer, reviews the files on the Schneider Johnson case, to make sure nothing has been overlooked. What George discovers connects a deserter from Napoleon's defeated army to a guerrilla fighter in post-war Greece, and leads him into a dangerous situation where his own survival will depend more on what he learned in the army than anything he learned in law school.


Book cover of Mistaken Identity

Garrett Epps Why did I love this book?

Scottoline, a former big-firm litigator, has created Benny Rosato, the founder of an all-female firm of defense lawyers, as the master of the world of courts and jails. In Mistaken Identity, however, Benny defends an unexpected client—“Alice Connoly,” who is Rosato herself, a double claiming to be a long-lost twin. What follows raises the question of why (as the mysterious defendant asks) Alice is in jail while Rosato is free, secure, and successful. In a way, Mistaken Identity is a feminist version of The Trial--a fever dream of that same hellish world that Kafka saw beneath K.’s feet--the law, supernatural and inhuman, that waits to devour the innocent and the guilty alike.

By Lisa Scottoline,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Another riveting courtroom thriller from the female John Grisham.

Crack trial lawyer Bennie Rosato is called to the local prison to consult with Alice Connolly, a woman accused of committing cold-blooded murder and who wants Bennie to represent her at the trial. Bennie has no intention of taking the case, until she comes face to face with Connolly: the incarcerated woman is a dead ringer for Bennie - and claims to be her long-lost twin sister. Disbelieving but somehow convinced, Bennie takes on the case against her better judgement, and starts sniffing out the corruption and dangerous cover-up that lies…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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