The Difference Between A Courtroom Drama and A Legal Thriller

Esta entrada es bilingüe, para ver la versión en castellano desplazarse hacia abajo.

In my review of A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio I wrote: The book is sometimes considered a legal thriller, although I’m inclined to think that it is best described as a courtroom drama.

I’ve made some brief search in the Internet and I have to rectify, I was wrong in my assessment. This is what I’ve found:

“Courtroom drama is a subtype of the mystery genre: in a classic-style courtroom drama the reader does not know “whodunit” until the climax of the story (I use “story” rather than “book” or “novel,” because screenplays and stage plays can also be courtroom dramas, and I can even name a poem that meets the requirements).

A legal thriller, on the other hand, usually reveals whodunit at the beginning or makes it clear that it doesn’t matter whodunit so much as whether he or she will get caught. The plot that follows focuses on whether or not justice shall prevail. Thrillers by definition have no mystery qualities. When you read a thriller, you expect to be thrilled. When you read a mystery, you expect to be puzzled and then pleasantly surprised.”


Therefore I should have stated the other way around. A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio is better described as a legal thriller rather than a courtroom drama.

Comments are welcome.

En mi reseña de Con los ojos cerrados de Gianrico Carofiglio escribí: El libro está considerado en ocasiones como un thriller legal, aunque me inclino a pensar que se puede describir mejor como un drama judicial.

¿Ha hecho alguna breve búsqueda en Internet y tengo que rectificar, yo estaba equivocado en mi apreciación. Esto es lo que encontré:

“Un drama judicial es un subtipo del género de misterio: en un drama judicial de estilo clásico el lector no sabe “quién lo hizo” hasta el clímax de la historia (yo uso “historia” en lugar de “libro” o “novela”, porque los guiones y obras de teatro también puede ser dramas judiciales, e incluso puedo mencionar un poema que cumple con los requisitos).

Un thriller legal, por el contrario, revela por lo general quién lo hizo al principio o deja claro que no importa tanto conocer quién lo hizo tanto como saber si lo van a atrapar. La trama se centra en saber si la justicia prevalecerá. Los thrillers, por definición, no tienen la categoría de misterio. Cuando lees una novela de suspense, esperas que te emocione. Cuando lees una novela de misterio, esperas quedar desconcertado, y después gratemente sorprendido.” (mi traducción libre).


En consecuencia yo debería haber indicado lo contrario. Con los ojos cerrados de Gianrico Carofiglio se puede describir mejor como thriller legal en lugar de drama judicial.

Agradezco suz comentarios.

10 thoughts on “The Difference Between A Courtroom Drama and A Legal Thriller”

  1. José Ignacio – Thanks for bringing up this topic. There are subtle (and actually not-so-subtle) differences between the two kinds of stories. I’ve also read legal thrillers where we don’t know who is guilty at least at first. I call that kind of novel a legal thriller (as opposed to a courtroom drama) when most of the story doesn’t take place in the courtroom. I’ve read novels, for instance, where the focus is on a lawyer who is looking for evidence and and where the novel focuses on that rather than on the courtroom. Sometimes, as I say, the differences between these two are very subtle….

    1. Thanks for your comment Margot. It was your previous comment which got me thinking about what I said in my review and now it seems to me that I was wrong. Does it makes sense?

      1. It really does make sense, José Ignacio. I think you make an interesting and real distinction here. Of course, there are always books that “straddle the line,” so that it is hard to decide exactly what they are. but in general I think you make a very good point here.

  2. I think you are more correct than the definition you found, Jose Ignacio! Unlike Sarah I am very fond of legal crime dramas and I’ve read many, including the Carofiglio. I’d say a courtroom drama is one that relies on a court case for the mystery to be solved – for example Scott Thurow. Legal thrillers are epitomised by some of John Grisham’s books (and other similar US authors eg Philip Margolin) where the main characters are lawyers and the plot involves legal matters, but events often come to a climax outside the courtroom, via the protagonist uncovering something eg a consipiracy of some sort.
    But everyone can make up their own definitinon, there is no “correct” one, of that I am sure! So whatever works for you. (I would not personally call any of Carofiglio’s books “thrillers”).

  3. I had never thought of such a distinction. I write with elements of both so I guess there is a hybrid courtroom drama/thriller. Sometimes you know whodunnit and sometimes you don’t. But my latest fits your definition of a courtroom drama. Interesting definitions. Time to break them and do something really different!

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