Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mutiny on the Bubble

from James Grippando

“So when do you think this legal thriller bubble is going to burst?”

I will never forget those words from my first editor. It was the fall of 1993, I was in New York to meet him for the very first time, and I nearly choked on my penne with Arabiata sauce.

“Bubble?” I said.

I didn’t know it yet, but I was talking to one of the handful of distinguished editors who had essentially passed on The Firm, having told John Grisham’s agent that he could maybe get him fifty grand for it. By 1993, the movie rights had already sold, Tom Cruise was on board to play Mitch McDeere, and Grisham was huge. So was Scott Turow. Richard North Patterson. Steve Martini. The television hit L.A. Law was still racking up Emmies by the bushel. Law and Order was in its fourth season. Even Judge Wapner of The People’s Court had become a household name, for crying out loud, and …

“Bubble? You really see it as a bubble?”

This fall marks fifteen years since the publication of The Pardon, my first novel—one of those “bubble” legal thrillers that is still in print and selling strong as installment #1 in the Jack Swyteck series. I realize now that my editor and I had radically different definitions of “legal thriller.” To him, it was a new invention. To me, it was at least as old as one of my all-time favorite novels: Mutiny on the Bounty.

It’s hard for most people to think about that masterpiece without conjuring up images of Clark Gable casting Charles Laughton adrift in that overloaded lifeboat (“I'll live to see you - all of you - hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet.”) If your memory (or film library) goes back only to Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, you’re probably still scratching your head at my “legal thriller” argument. But if you re-read the novel, you will quickly understand what I’m talking about. Sure, the bulk of the story is a maritime adventure. But those court martial scenes in later chapters still get my heart racing, and I can almost feel the shadow of the gallows as those mutineers plead for help from their lawyers. There are courtroom scenes in the movies, but for me they pale in comparison to the prose. That’s why, in my book, Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall was perhaps the first—and is definitely one of the finest—legal thrillers ever written. It is Exhibit A in the stack of proof that this is no bubble.

I wish I had written it.

P.S. Patty will return in all her naked splendor next week.


  1. That "bubble" has been around a while. I could make a case that the 1950's were a golden age of legal thrillers in books, plays, and films. Witness for the Prosecution. The Caine Mutiny. Judgment at Nuremberg. Inherit the Wind. Anatomy of a Murder. Although it is so much more, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a legal thriller.

    Good to have you back, Jim.

  2. Just goes to show you that editors don't know any more than the rest of us.

  3. Let's not forget "12 Angry Men", which I loved. Oh, but "Inherit the Wind" still gives me chills.

    Some bubble.