THE BLOG
10/09/2014 08:38 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Mystery

I never planned to write legal mystery. I'd had in mind something stodgier -- solid stories that could stand on a shelf with all the great works that I'd encountered over the years.

One end of that shelf is occupied by the writings of nineteenth century naturalists. I studied biology in college. In those years I fed my inner writer on the scratchings of meadow wanderers like Thoreau and Muir and Darwin.

Thinking back on it now, I admit I got too focused on those tweedy guys. For example, one summer when I was able to cajole the girl next door into accompanying me on a "just friends" trip to Cape Cod -- with youth then in full flood and this lovely companion beside me on the beach blanket -- I actually sat reading Walden, in the deranged idea it might impress her. (Wrong).

Years later, in a graduate writing program, I rounded out my cultural education by binging on the less bug-infested masterpieces of English Literature (with a few of the Russians thrown in). You know the books: the ones about adultery and human frailty and moral ambiguity and good and evil. You can find a menu of these books on the back cover of any Cliff Notes volume.

So when I first attempted to commit my own act of literature I was under the influence of both groups: the pipe-smoking naturalists, and the wider-ranging chroniclers of human foible. The book I wrote was full of big themes. I felt sure it was fit to share a shelf with the masterpieces.

It didn't sell.

Lucky for me though, in the years before sitting down to write, I'd done two useful things: I'd acquired a law degree and I'd read Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. And somehow without my intending it, these two influences simmered in my subconscious to cook up not only a specific idea for a legal mystery, but more important, the initial murmurings of a philosophy about legal mystery writing in general.

I have started thinking of mystery stories as a burial: There is a skeleton at the core, then the flesh and blood encasing it, and then the dirt concealing it.

The skeleton is the book's basic plot. We want to know what happened to whom, who did it, and whether or not the killer will get caught: Perp; Victim; Motive; Cconsequence. These are the bones -- the corpus delicti which the reader must exhume. (Note that in detective mystery the identity and capture of the perp takes up the most pages, while in legal mystery, it is the question of consequence that usually dominates. Of course both genres toy with the element of motive.)

Next comes the flesh and blood. In writing classes we call it "character." The naked bones of a skeleton are encased in the flesh and blood of all the characters: their quirks, personal histories, beliefs, vulnerabilities, ethics, rituals, ailments, joys, agonies secrets, passions and psychoses. From these details, the population of a novel is given its humanity. We love or loathe the characters according to flesh and blood hung on them by the author.

Finally comes all the dirt shoveled in on top of the body. The dirt is everything else. It is side plots, red herrings. It is the physical locations of the story and the minor characters and weather and buildings and political influences and -- the mystery writer's darling -- procedural details. It is the environment of the story.

The writer must be scrupulous in this burial. He or she must tamp the soil tightly around the corpse, and must fit chunks of turf, their shrubs and grasses undisturbed, back into place so that everything blends into a deceptive appearance of normalcy. The reader then takes shovel in hand and, page by page, digs. Every shovelful lifted from the grave influences the digger's/reader's notion of what lies beneath.

When it's done well, when the bones were hand-picked, the flesh and blood hung lovingly with life-like detail, and the soil tamped and sod replaced just-so, then the skeleton we unearth is shocklingly, horrifyingly, and wonderfully, both something we never imagined, and, exactly what we knew it would be.

Think how well Scott Turow did this in Presumed Innocent. The skeleton in Presumed Innocent is as simple as a plot can be. Any mystery reader (and the police) should have immediately zeroed in on who killed Caroline Polhemus. But Turow built his characters so well (flesh and blood) and then concealed the plot so flawlessly under the soil of Rusty's trial, that we were riveted on the element of consequences -- would Rusty be convicted? -- and wholly overlooked the most basic question of all: Who did it?

The simple elegance of Presumed Innocent is stunningly satisfying.

But that's not why I fell in love with legal mystery. I like legal mystery because it's fun to write -- bones, flesh and blood, soil. But I love legal mystery because, as I considered the genre and contemplated the legal system, and as I thought about literature in general, I discovered what many great writers have discovered over the years and decades and centuries before me. I recognized how the genre of legal drama is a gift from the muse. It offers itself to writers. It beckons us because every crime, every investigation and trial and conviction and acquittal and execution and imprisonment oozes with the great themes: Redemption, oppression, futility, victimization, want, perseverance, anguish, exultation, moral ambiguity, and sometimes even comedy.

These are concepts you find in courtrooms every day. And they are the ingredients of literature. You find them not just in bestsellers, but on the shelves that hold the greatest classics. Consider The Merchant of Venice, Les Miserables, Cry The Beloved Country, The Trial, A Passage to India, Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Letter. On and on and on. They are all legal dramas. Some have mystery, some have surprises, and some just have the slow, grinding emotion of a Jobian character trapped by circumstance.

These books, and many thousands of others, use legal drama as plot, and legal drama to
tell a bigger story. Those themes are blended into the soil, into the flesh and blood, and into the bones left lying in the hole when everything else has been cast away.

In all the best works of legal mystery, the author hands his reader a shovel with one simple instruction: Exhume!

Lee Goodman is the author of Indefensible (Atrium/Emily Bestler Books).