Karen A Wyle, Closest to the Fire

A book review for Mystery Thriller Week

The word “stipulate” is very often used incorrectly, usually by non-lawyers. Take this, from a recent report in The Guardian: “The law would stipulate that newspapers would normally pay the costs of legal action against them, regardless of the lawsuit’s merit, if that publisher hadn’t signed up to an ‘approved regulator’.” No, the law (s. 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which had not yet been brought into force at the time of writing) would not “stipulate” but rather provide or require. To stipulate is to agree that another party to litigation does not need to prove something they’d normally be required to as part of their case. It’s way of narrowing the issues in dispute and saving trial time. Misuse of the term is very annoying to those, lawyers included, who know what it really means.

Karen A Wyle, in her Closest to the Fire: A Writer’s Guide to Law and Lawyers makes a brave and determined effort to save writers from falling into this kind of error. Those aspects of the law which might interest a fiction author cover a wide field and her approach is comprehensive, stretching over 657 print pages (iBooks says 879 pages, at what I find a comfortable font size for reading). The book is intended as a reference, not to be read through at one sitting, though I have to add that it’s very readable and entertaining. It includes a very useful glossary which runs from “Accessory” to “Writ”.

The task undertaken by the author is even more onerous because there are so many different common law jurisdictions, each with its own variations of the rules. In the US, each state has its own legal system, and is also under the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Other systems based on the common law, including Ireland’s where I live, have their own idiosyncrasies, but the broad outline is similar to that which the author describes.

Ms Wyle is an appellate lawyer, which means her work is more often concerned with legal than with factual issues. That certainly helps her to bring the huge subject matter under a remarkable degree of control. Her courage in embarking on such a project is admirable, but her execution of that task is even more striking.

This book is an indispensable resource for anyone wishing to write about the law and/or lawyers without falling into embarrassing error.

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