Today, I’m on the hot seat, answering questions about EARLY GRAVE posed by ace novelist Robert Rotstein  for “The Big Thrill,” the publication of International Thriller Writers.

The setup: When his godson suffers a catastrophic injury in a high school football game, lawyer Jake Lassiter sues to abolish the sport and becomes the most hated man in Miami. At the same time, the former NFL linebacker battles CTE, the fatal brain disease caused by repetitive head injuries. Complicating Lassiter’s lawsuit and his health, his personal life hits a rocky patch. He’s in couple’s therapy with fiancée Dr. Melissa Gold and vows to live long enough to fix his relationship and achieve justice for his godson.

Q: Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?

A: Character and plot are intertwined for me. Writing a series character has the advantage/disadvantage of a fully formed protagonist. An often cynical lawyer, his personality traits govern how he will handle every situation. “In the practice of law, a sea inhabited by sharks and other carnivores, my ethics are simple. I won’t lie to a judge, steal from a client, or bribe a cop. Other than that, anything goes.”

Jake Lassiter is a lawyer who believes the justice system is flawed and that “rough justice is better than none.” This is where character and plot merge. “Justice requires lawyers who are prepared, witnesses who tell the truth, judges who know the law, and jurors who stay awake. Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold or mass produced. If you are to spend your life in its pursuit, it is best to believe it exists and hope that you can attain it.”

Q: What was the biggest challenge this presented? What about the biggest opportunity?

A: EARLY GRAVE is the 15th and final novel in the series that began with TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, an international bestseller back in 1990. There’s a fine line to be walked in a long-running series. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I want my protagonist to grow and change with the years (as I hopefully have done). But I don’t want him to lose the core of his identity. Even as he faces life-threatening medical issues (C.T.E.) and relationship problems, he’s still the lawyer with a tough bark and gentle heart. It would be boring for the writer and the reader if the character never changed. But it would be jarring if he or she turned into someone new.

Q: No spoilers, but what can you tell us about EARLY GRAVE that we won’t find in the jacket copy or the PR material?

A: The basic issue in the last book of a long-running series is often whether the protagonist will live or die. I didn’t make that decision until the last chapter.

Q: What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?

A: John D. MacDonald demonstrated the strength of the first-person protagonist. I love his opening sentence of CINNAMON SKIN. “There are no one hundred percent heroes.” Carl Hiaasen influenced my ability to mix humor with suspense beginning with TOURIST SEASON. Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT is quite simply the best courtroom novel I’ve ever read. A complex, layered protagonist and a devilishly clever mystery.

Then, there’s that magical little voice inside that turns personal experiences and observations into a story. I’m not sure how that works, but I suppose that ‘s why it’s magical.

Q. What’s next for Paul Levine?

It seems Jake Lassiter has written his autobiography. He’s a lousy typist and can’t spell any word longer than two syllables, but he says he’ll break both my thumbs if I change a noun or consonant.  So…we’ll see.

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“Levine scores with ‘Early Grave,’ a complex and witty legal thriller. This winner works even for those new to the series.” – Publishers Weekly (★starred review★)



Paul Levine

Paul Levine

PAUL LEVINE has won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus and James Thurber prizes. He wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. “To Speak for the Dead,” an international bestseller featuring lawyer Jake Lassiter, was his first novel. He is also the author of the “Solomon vs. Lord” series of legal capers. Among his latest novels are "Bum Rap," a Amazon Number One Bestseller, and “Cheater’s Game,” in which Lassiter dives deep into the college admissions scandal. His newest novel is “Early Grave,” in which an ailing Lassiter sues to abolish high school football as a “public nuisance.” A graduate of Penn State and the University of Miami School of Law, he divides his time between Santa Barbara, CA and Miami, FL.
Paul Levine
Paul Levine