The final part of our look at legal novels: the Ugly, featuring Ian McEwan


Having graced your shelves with mighty tomes that testify to literature’s power to inspire and transform, and added a few corking reads to enliven the morning commute, we bring you – with no apology – some suggestions for the very worst books to include in the lawyer’s library.

“But surely” (I hear you cry) “life is too long to waste a moment on such dross! What can possibly be the benefit of reading bad books when there are so many good ones still to be read?”

A fair point, but as this choice selection of turkeys demonstrates, there’s something to be learned from the contemplation of even the most dismayingly bad book. Whether its baffling success spurs you to overcome failure, or its horrid philosophising awakes a slumbering political conscience, a bad book need not be a waste of time. Plus, they can be terribly entertaining.

The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand (1943)

Corporate lawyers driven distracted by client demands might find relief in Ayn Rand’s ghastly novel – if only in gratitude that no-one could possibly be as appalling as Howard Roark. This bloated and tedious affair recounts the life story of Roark, a misunderstood architectural genius. If ploughing through 700 pages of lumpen prose enlivened only by a shockingly misogynistic rape scene were not enough, the book’s philosophy is distinctly stomach turning.

Roark symbolises an idealised ubermensch, whose struggle to see his genius recognised is supposed to evoke the triumph of ruthless individualism at the cost of absolutely everyone and everything else. Contempt for the ‘weak’ and needy hovers over every page: one imagines it’s a popular read in certain quarters of the political classes. A book fit for nothing but kindling.

Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005)

Written shortly before the Terrorism Act 2006 came into force in the UK, Saturday is a crashing demonstration of what happens when professional success alienates a writer from any semblance of reality.

The novel is a staggeringly fatuous and smug depiction of Henry Perowne, middle aged (naturally), charismatic (of course) neurosurgeon (well, why wouldn’t he be?) who lives in Fitzrovia (obviously) with his gorgeous (no, stop) wife and extravagantly talented children (you don’t say). His son is a blues guitarist of astonishing talent – being a young white boy, that makes perfect sense – and his daughter is a poet. A really, really good one.

Against sketchily right-on anxiety about post 9/11 Islamophobia, the family Perowne appears like a composite Messiah of the British middle-class. Perowne’s daughter disarms a knife-wielding maniac by reciting poetry whilst naked and pregnant, and Perowne later saves a man’s life in an act of selfless heroism before going home to make tender but intelligent love to his wife.

Critics were largely ecstatic – but many readers vomited quietly into the nearest bucket and swore never to read McEwan again. It earns its place in the lawyer’s library as a cautionary tale against the perils of ambition and success.

Jeffrey Archer, the complete works

Ah, Jeffrey: he of the dubious peerage and the fragrant wife. A fair point, and yet consider the chutzpah, the brass neck, the sheer weapons-grade indestructible self-belief that has attended Archer’s career.

He is the cockroach of the literary world. When all others have succumbed to the long-predicted death of the novel there he will be, knocking off the tale of some cheeky Cockerney costermonger building an empire out of sausage casings before becoming Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

What possible place can he have in the library of the lawyer? Well – criminal lawyers may take guilty pleasure in incisively realistic (*cough*) plots such that in Honour Among Thieves. Furthermore, in moments of weariness and despondency, we may all glance up at the disgraced old lag’s name on the spine of a dozen best-sellers, and whisper: “I too will survive.”

Flowers in the Attic, Virginia Andrews (1987)

Alas for the Wills and Probate specialist: rarely does their practice feature in fiction. To that end we bring you a Gothic tale which would have ended happily on page four had someone only engaged a lawyer.

Full disclosure, dear readers: I adore this book. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times, and (I blush to confess) all its sequels. But even its most fervent admirers cannot in all honesty defend its gleefully trashy portrayal of a mother driven to secrete her four fair children in a mouldy attic in pursuit of a lost inheritance.

Stretching credibility to breaking point before setting fire to it and burying the ashes in lime, Andrews requires us to believe that four growing children could live on the upper floor of a house without anyone ever knowing, abandoned by their feckless mother and inventively tortured by a sadistic grandmother (powdered donut, anyone?) before succumbing to soft-focus incest.

Also recommended for family lawyers, who may in fact be entirely unsurprised by the plot.

Irene Iddesleigh, Amanda McKittrick Ros (1897)

What better way to conclude the lawyer’s library than with this: widely regarded as the worst book ever written – and one which need never have existed had the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act come into force forty years earlier. Self-published in 1897 by Amanda McKittrick Ros, Irene Iddesleigh’s tale of a miserable marriage is so hysterically bad that reading it is almost physically painful.

Characterised by never using one word where three hundred would do, it includes such tortuous sentences as (brace yourself): “Within the venerable walls surrounding this erection of amazement and wonder may be seen species of trees rarely, if ever, met with; yea, within the beaded borders of this grand old mansion the eye of the privileged beholds the magnificent lake, studded on every side with stone of costliest cut and finish; the richest vineries, the most elegant ferns, the daintiest conservatories, the flowers and plants of almost every clime in abundance, the most fashionable walks, the most intricate windings that imagination could possibly conceive or genius contrive. In fact, it has well been named “The Eden of Luxury.”

(Translated: in the walled garden, many trees surrounded the lake).

And yet, there’s something both touching and inspiring about a woman – and a Victorian one at that – determined to express herself, and fervently convinced that her art has worth. She said, “My chief object of writing is and always has been, to write if possible in a strain all my own. This I find is why my writings are so much sought after.”

A book that belongs firmly on the family lawyer’s shelf, as a reminder that not only are they safeguarding the welfare of families but – so much more importantly! – may be preventing so distressing a novel from ever being perpetrated again.  SP

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