Under Oath by Margaret McLean
Quite early on in Victorian times, the authors of fiction realised their readers were fascinated by the way the machinery of the state actually works. So they began to write about the individuals and policing bodies given the responsibility of detecting wrongdoers. Once the criminals were caught, the braver authors moved on to the courts and punishment systems. From Dickens with the Pickwick Papers (Bardell v Pickwick) and Bleak House (Jarndyce v Jarndyce) onwards, it was into the jousting between lawyers with judges as referees and juries meant to decides on the facts and only the facts. This picked up speed when real lawyers decided they could add to the mythology of courtroom drama from the inside. The truth is that life in courts has always been tedious and dull. So the only way to make it even halfway interesting is to fictionalise. The first major figure out of the blocks was Earl Stanley Gardner. As most practitioners, he was bored by the reality and would wander round the offices and corridors of power (when he had them to himself) dictating the next exciting scene of Perry Mason’s cross-examination. We move forward through John Mortimer’s delightful Rumpole to the legal thrillers of John Grisham who prefers counting his millions to going into court. All of which brings me to Under Oath by Margaret McLean who has been a prosecutor and now teaches law at university.
In judging books which contain big set-piece trials, there’s a certain irony in my choice of comparator. Instead of picking another legally qualified author as my touchstone, I choose Kate Wilhelm. Against this measure, I regret to say Margaret McLean comes out as an also-ran. The modern problem really started with Murder One, the television series which initially convinced the gullible that a real-time, blow-by-blow account of a criminal trial could hold everyone’s attention over hours of peak time. This ignores the fact that you can have too much of a good thing. Indeed, at 41 episodes and three major trials, viewers might just as well have been watching the real thing, just tweaked a bit to reduce the boring bits. You will notice no-one has tried to repeat the Murder One formula. All that talk and discussion of the law just weighs people down. Modern television shows either aim for laughs, like Boston Legal, or keep the court scenes to a minimum as in the various Law & Order series.
Yet Margaret McLean has gone for broke with more or less all the action taking place in or around the courtroom. She even has set-piece interlocutory applications where the attorneys cite cases to the judge and discuss the merits of some quite sophisticated legal ideas. After a while, I began to accelerate. I was sufficiently interested to see how the prosecutor would finally get the result, but I really could not face all the intervening stuff. Perhaps if it’s set as a study aid for her law students, they can read every last sentence and benefit. But as a lay reader, it was less than riveting even though she introduced dodgy FBI behaviour and other “excitement” in increasingly desperate attempts to keep us reading. The best way of dealing with the challenge of maintaining interest is to follow the example of Kate Wilhelm in the Barbara Holloway series. Although the first has a terrible genre-bending ending which should be ignored and the last two fail to show Barbara in full flow as a defence lawyer, the pattern is clear. You introduce everyone and work through the pre-trial preparation. This involves a significant amount of time exploring the lives of the series characters and, as the series develops, builds up a more general interest. There’s still a trial with some great cross-examinations and some clever legal manoeuvring. But it gets the potential boredom factor down to manageable levels.
You will therefore understand Under Oath is only for the die-hard fans of “pure” courtroom drama. I gather she has been working on turning this plot into a stage production. I think this would be doomed to fail. No matter how clever the dialogue, such plays are essentially static and rapidly grow boring. The only exception I can recall was Witness for the Prosecution which I saw during the 1950s. This was saved by the “I didn’t see that coming” ending, whereas Margaret McLean amply demonstrates that she’s no Agatha Christie in producing outrageous twists to arrive at her desired verdict.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.