Originally published in 1927, Frances Noyes Hart’s The Bellamy Trial is one of the first legal thrillers. While it shows the prejudices and attitudes (all women are girls, unless they are elderly, for example) of the time, the central plot and premise hold up well. There are blustering lawyers, surprise witnesses, reversals, betting on the jury’s verdict, and all the trimmings. Readers who like to take a dip into the early works of a genre will get a kick out of this fast read.
We get a free seat in the courtroom in The Bellamy Trial thanks to two writers. One of them, only described as a red-haired girl who wants to become a novelist, is looking forward to attending her first murder trial. The other, a veteran journalist, often checks his companion’s enthusiasm with the voice of experience. The two provide occasional commentary on the proceedings while we get to hear the opening and closing arguments and eight days of witness examination. Like these two writers and the jury, we are left to figure out what really happened. Unlike these characters, however, we do finally learn who done it in a surprising coda.
What fascinates me and perturbs me about courtroom mysteries is the drama of it all. In the American system, a not insubstantial part of the outcome of the case is the ability and charisma of the attorneys. A jury of one’s peers sounds like a good idea. After all, it means that we don’t have to worry if a judge takes such a dislike to us that they toss us in jail forever. The problem is that people respond to emotional appeals and much as logic. If a lawyer can put on a good show, they might be able to sway the jury in spite of the evidence. Trials were our first reality shows.
The Bellamy Trial is definitely a good show. I was as much on tenterhooks as the red-haired girl as I tried to figure out who was lying to conceal their guilt, who was making things up for their own gain, and working out the timeline of the night in question. I was bothered by the lawyers’ paternalism and some of the sexism, but the increasingly complicated mystery kept me riveted.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.