Long-standing enthusiasts of the legal thriller will recall Erle Stanley Gardner’s potboilers featuring the lawyer-detective Perry Mason. First appearing in the 1920s, they dominated the mass-market for five decades, with sales over 300 million. However, tales with legal themes have an even older, surprisingly distinguished, history. For instance, Abraham Lincoln wrote a short story based on a real life trial, The Trailor Murder Mystery. Wilkie Collins drew upon his legal training to write The Woman In White, melding elements such as an innocent victim, conspiracy, detection, suspense and the judicial system to make a case for the unequal treatment of married women in the matter of property rights. Two enduring novels with legal settings are To Kill A Mockingbird and Anatomy Of A Murder. The first is notable for its fine characterization of the attorney-hero and the second for its lifelike portrayal of the criminal justice system. While most of the action takes place in the courtroom, justice does not necessarily prevail. Instead, what hooks readers is the nitty-gritty of trial warfare with quirky judges, ambitious prosecutors, sharp defence lawyers, lying witnesses and the accused in their many different avatars.
First among equals
America, where the culture of litigation thrives and everybody can get sued – doctors, lawyers, journalists, priests, teachers, continues to be the largest breeding ground for lawyer-authors. Among these, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, Steve Martini and George Higgins top the list. Though the legal thriller as a genre is popular in India, readers here have had to wait till quite recently for home-grown versions to appear. For stimulating interest in this area, the credit must go to Vish Dhamija. A law dropout-turned-digital marketer, Dhamija was already the author of several well-received crime novels before he wrote Deja Karma, described as a legal-psychological thriller. Published in 2015, it was followed by Unlawful Justice, The Mogul and the latest, Cold Justice.
A jury of her peers
Set in New Delhi, Cold Justice features ‘two of India’s best defence lawyers’, the dashing Akash Hingorani and his friend Vansh Diwan, who jointly take up the case for a woman accused of first-degree homicide. Shilpa Singh is not just ‘ remarkably beautiful’, with a ‘slender figure, high cheek bones, heart-shaped face and well-outlined lips,’ but also a judge in whose court Akash has appeared earlier and with whom he was, for a brief period, intimately involved. On learning that she has been charged with murder, he naturally rushes to her defence. Despite the damning evidence against her, Judge Shilpa admits only to a slight misjudgement – in being arrested at the scene of the crime, ‘kneeling next to the corpse with the knife I had pulled out of it in my hand.’ Though hers are the only fingerprints identified on the murder weapon, a ‘Solimo Stainless Steel Chef’s Knife’, she maintains that she is innocent. She further claims that she was lured to the rendezvous in Lodhi Garden by a phone call from an unidentified person who claimed to have vital evidence against a venal politician under trial in her court; when she arrived for the meeting, it was to find the caller stabbed to death.
While the situation looks bleak for her, the identity of the corpse remains a mystery. Apart from dignifying it with a moniker, Ashok Kumar, the police aren’t too interested in identification. Akash hires the services of Pentium, a private eye of menacing appearance, ungentlemanly language and no personal life who is ‘the king of Ws: Who? When? Where? What? Which? Why?’ Furthermore, Akash ropes in Chavi Nair, an investigative journalist to ‘shift the media focus’ away from his love affair with the judge.
As in any thriller, two factors, a likeable protagonist and narrative tension, generate the suspense quotient. Dhamija writes in an easy, direct style and the basic premise of Cold Justice – a motiveless murder in which a sitting judge is the accused – is interesting. However, the characters, for the most part, are cardboard cut-outs. Akash grapples with personal dilemmas, such as ‘to be or not to be alone with Shilpa’ and whether he is or is not still in love with her. The corrupt politician Kailash Prasad belongs to a breed of criminals who are ‘mis-wired to believe that (they) aren’t doing anything wrong.’ The prosecution lawyer, Ravi Nanda is ‘one of the most fearsome, the most respected and the most sought-after prosecutors.’ Among these one-dimensional portrayals, Anshuman Durve, the judge chosen to preside over the trial, stands out as the most compelling. Indeed, it is in his court that the narration livens up. Having two judges in the same courtroom, one judging and the other being judged, creates not just an extraordinary trial but also a quaint confusion as to who is to be called ‘Judge’ and who is ‘Your Honour’. With these conundrums, the question of whether the accused was an innocent bystander or a coldblooded killer is reduced to a moot point that eventually gets resolved once the identity of the corpse is revealed.