The best realist novels about criminal trials

Who am I?

I have always been interested in stories about misplaced guilt, probably because my father died when I was very young and I grew up with a strong sense of survivor guilt. Miscarriages of justice for me dramatize the unjust verdicts passed against us in our hearts when we lose a loved one. Whether writing nonfiction for The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal or fiction for Penguin and Little Brown, this theme influences all my work.

I wrote...

The Jump Artist

By Austin Ratner,

Book cover of The Jump Artist

What is my book about?

The Jump Artist is a work of realist, psychological fiction based on the true story of photographer Philippe Halsman, who was falsely convicted of murdering his father in the Tyrolean Alps in 1928. The events scarred him forever, but he kept them secret as he went on to become one of the most famous portrait photographers who ever lived, capturing classic images of everyone from Einstein to Marilyn Monroe. Called “brilliant” by The Guardian, The Jump Artist tells the extraordinary tale of a man who transforms himself from a victim of anti-Semitism into a purveyor of the marvelous. The novel won the 2011 Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

The books I picked & why

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The Trial

By Franz Kafka,

Book cover of The Trial

Why this book?

“Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” So Kafka introduces us to a baroque, magical-realist, and often hilarious shadow-world of shabby, corrupt justice. This is the finest fictional study—and parody—ever created of conscience gone berserk. I love it most of all for its devout darkness that sparkles with humor. The sly derision of depressive, guilty thoughts is like an escape hatch from the labyrinth of despair.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch has an unerring sense of decency and good aim too. In addition to exonerating an innocent man and defying the racism of his day, he shoots a rabid dog in the street, which much impresses his son Jem. What I like most about Atticus Finch, however, is his expansive empathy, which nevertheless does not impair his sense of justice. He’s the lawyer Joseph K. needed!

The Eumenides

By Aeschylus, E.D.A. Morshead,

Book cover of The Eumenides

Why this book?

If you want to know what Kafka’s The Trial would have been like without a sense of humor, try reading Aeschylus. Though this ancient Greek tragedian does not aim for laughs (and does not get any!) his depiction of the furies of conscience has an elemental power and purity like a Beethoven motif or a Picasso masterpiece. The Eumenides may well be the first-ever courtroom drama, with Orestes on trial for killing his mother Clytemnestra. Aeschylus goes straight at the most difficult of human emotions—guilt—and like Sophocles, he explores it specifically in a family context. Who, after all, makes us more guilty than our parents? 

The Brothers Karamazov

By Fyodor Dostoevsky,

Book cover of The Brothers Karamazov

Why this book?

Reading Dostoevsky is not easy, but there’s a reason he was Sigmund Freud’s favorite Russian writer: he wrote unblinkingly about guilt and rage and shame, regardless of how hard it is to contemplate these ugly facets of the self. He is a heroic writer, standing on a precipice, refusing to back down from the cold and snow and biting wind. And in recording the most difficult truths, he warms me up like a winter fire lasting as long into the night as this 1000-page behemoth of classic literature on a patricide trial.

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of The Merchant of Venice

Why this book?

You may not think of The Merchant of Venice as a trial book, but the majority of Act IV takes place in a Venice courtroom where Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, and the Duke thrash out the ‘pound of flesh’ business. In a sense, the play itself is a corrupt judgment against Jews, trafficking as it does in nasty anti-Semitic stereotypes. Shakespeare left it to later writers to give a more well-rounded account of Jewish people. But Merchant is at the same time a fine study of the rage that such racial injustice provokes, and as with pretty much everything Shakespeare ever wrote, it’s full of poetic imagery and memorably wise in every line.

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