Author Interviews: The Harvard Square Grills Crime Novelist

Author Interviews: Author at work

(Author Interviews Note by Paul Levine: The closest I ever got to Harvard was in 1973 when its law school offered me admission to its LL.M. program. I was just about to graduate from the University of Miami Law School and thought I wanted to be a professor. Oh, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I was a new father and needed a paying job, not more tuition, so I reluctantly said “no thanks.” This week I sat down with Mary Yuhas of The Harvard Square who grilled me with questions, both literary and personal. (Hemingway was unavailable). This is adapted from her article, which appeared February 12, 2014).

Author Interviews: Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Paul Levine

The author of 18 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The critically acclaimed international bestseller To Speak for the Dead featuring Jake Lassiter was his first novel. Levine is also the author of the Solomon vs. Lord series and the thrillers Illegal, Ballistic, Impact, and Paydirt. His most recent novel is State vs. Lassiter. He is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School.  More information on his website.

Author Interviews: The Q & A

H.S.: How did you begin your writing career?

Paul: I blame windsurfing. I was on vacation in Maui and got injured windsurfing off the North Shore. It was hard to walk so for two weeks. I had nothing to do but lie on the beach. I had a pen and a yellow legal pad, which was useful because, at the time, I was a lawyer. I was thinking about a case of mine in which an old man’s busty secretary set up the theft of $2 million in negotiable bonds from his home office. In real life, the story was fairly boring. I got the bonds back; no one went to jail, but I saw possibilities for fiction…involving windsurfing.

H.S.: So you started writing in longhand on a legal pad?

Paul: This was a long time ago.  A “laptop” was a dance in a strip club.  Anyway, I scribbled one sentence on the legal pad: “The old man loved money, gadgets, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three.” It’s the first line of fiction I ever wrote unless you count all the legal briefs I filed over the years. The sentence got me started. It opens chapter one of Riptide, one of the Jake Lassiter series.

Author interviews: Paul
Paul’s image of himself hurrying to court as a young, nasty lawyer

H.S.: Your novels “often have a sly, sardonic tone,” according to Wikipedia.

Paul: They’re one to talk.

H.S.: Seriously, you often write about murder trials, and yet you often bring humor into play.

Paul: As Jake Lassiter points out, there’s a hilarious sign in every courtroom in Miami: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” Then there’s Steve Solomon who makes up his own rules: “When the law doesn’t work…work the law.” Let’s just say that, having tried cases for 17 years, I have a healthy skepticism about what Lassiter terms the “so-called justice system.”

Author Interviews. Paul as lawyer
As a young trial lawyer, the author tries to look older and wiser. As an older man, he attempts to look younger and hipper.

H.S.: If you were starting out today, would you look for an agent or publish via an e-book?

Paul: I would definitely try the traditional approach of a getting an agent and a legacy publisher. Self-publishing a single work without a backlist is very, very difficult. How many ebooks are out there? Five million? Six million? More? How do you get noticed? The optimum way is the old hardcover/paperback deal. Or trade paperback by a recognized publisher.

The Equation: Writing Equals Rejection Squared

H.S. Did you ever have doubts about your writing ability, especially after harsh criticism or literary agent rejections? How did you handle it and what do you suggest to others?

Paul: I am filled with self-doubt! I am always surprised when a story works, or dialogue zings, or a character becomes real. I wrote two books on spec that never sold to publishers. Yes, that hurt. I also now see the weaknesses in those books. I also wrote many spec features that didn’t sell to Hollywood and wrote TV pilots (both hired by the networks and on spec) that didn’t were never made. There should be an equation. Writing equals Rejection Squared. Advice? Handle it! Persevere. Don’t whine. Put your butt in the chair and write!

H.S.: What’s the biggest mistake first time authors often make?

Paul: Impatience, which causes poor writing. With beginning writers, there’s a tendency to think you’re done when you’ve finished with your first or second draft. Unless you are a genius, which I’m not, you’ve just reached second base. To score a run, you’ve got to rewrite and rewrite. Hemingway said, “all good writing is rewriting.” Take his advice. Rewrite and polish.

Author interviews: Hemingway shoots
When he wasn’t polishing his prose, Hemingway was polishing his aim.

H.S.: Any other tips for first-time-authors?

Paul: Read good authors in a field you enjoy. But DON’T copy their style. There’s nothing worse than a faux Elmore Leonard. Read books about story structure and writing novels. There are really too many to recommend, but Stephen King’s book On Writing comes to mind. And, of course, write!

H.S.: Is it easier or harder to get into writing today than when you started?

Paul: It’s harder to break into traditional publishing than when I started in the 1980s with Bantam because there are fewer major publishers. There has been some growth in smaller, independent presses, which is good, but the flip side is that the amount of the advance is generally less. But then, there is the new world of self-publishing on the internet with Amazon and its competitors. Nothing wrong with that, but there seems to be a myth that self-publishing ebooks is an easy way to riches and fame. That’s not the case.

H.S.: Author Interviews wants to know: how long does it take you to write a book?

Paul: From idea to concept to research to outline to writing and revisions, it takes me nine months to a year for most of the series books. I already have my protagonist and his world in my head. I don’t need to drive to the courthouse to see what a courtroom looks like. For standalones, such as Illegal, it took closer to a year and 1/2 to two years Part of the book is written from the point of view of a young Mexican woman and part from her 12-year-old son’s POV. I was terrified I could not write in the voice of a 30-year-old female illegal alien. In the end, I believe it turned out well.

H.S.: How did you break into writing TV screenwriting?

Paul: I became friends with fellow Penn State grad Don Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap,” and “JAG,” among others. He enjoyed my books, and I enjoyed his shows. When he wrote the two-hour pilot of “JAG,” he shared it with me. I told him I liked it very much, but did television really want a show about Navy lawyers? (What did I know! The show ran 10 years and about 220 episodes). Anyway, in the third season, Don asked if I wanted to write a script as a free-lancer. I’d written a couple of TV pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, and I thought I understood the voice of the show and could write those characters, so I did it, and the episode aired pretty much the way I wrote it.

Author Interviews.  Paul's credit
The television writer gets immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

The next year, I freelanced another script for “JAG,” and the year after that, Don asked me to move to Los Angeles and work full-time on the show. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But I had just written one of those spec novels that didn’t sell. So I took the job, which frankly paid WAY more money that I expected. And the Writers Guild has a helluva health plan and a pension plan, something book authors don’t get. Of course, occasionally you have to stop working and hit the picket lines.  I’m a big believer in unions, by the way. Without Hollywood unions, there’d be no royalties, pensions, or health plans.

Author Interviews: Strike
The author with fellow scribblers Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson bring Disney to its knees during the 2007 strike.

In my second season on the show, I took an idea to Don for a drama set at the Supreme Court, focusing on the interactions between the justices and the law clerks. (It was loosely based on my Supreme Court thriller, Impact.) Don liked it; Les Moonves at CBS liked it; and it became the short-lived “First Monday.” Don and I co-wrote the pilot, which starred James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning and folded after 13 episodes, with some of the oldest demographics in the history of television. Or as I like to say, we were a hit with the crowd between Medicare and the mortuary.

Author Interviews: First Monday
The coveted “Created By” credit. Even more coveted if the show succeeds, which “First Monday” didn’t

H.S.: Any Author Interviews tips for writers interested in script writing?

Paul: Read Robert Towne’s script of “Chinatown.” Read “Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. And good luck.

H.S.: Any truth to the rumor that you steered a nuclear submarine?

Paul: One of the perks on “JAG” was that the writers got to hang out with the U.S. Navy, without having to be in actual danger. One day, we flew from a naval base to an aircraft carrier. The landing was pretty cool. Another day, we spent on a Los Angeles class attack submarine. And yes, they let me steer it for about 30 seconds. No international incidents occurred as a result.

H.S.: Finally, thank you for sitting down with Author Interviews.  What’s in your future?

Paul: I read a lot of emails from readers. The ones who don’t point out typos are evenly divided between writing a new Lassiter or another in the Solomon vs. Lord series. If anyone out there has an idea, I’m open to it and can always be contacted through my website. And, living in Miami, I am still trying to make the perfect mojito.

More information on the Paul Levine Website.

Photography: The Man who Loved Autumn and Children

Photography as Art

By Paul Levine

Unlike most of my posts, this is not about crime fiction or mysteries or legal thrillers.  There will not be a homicide, a kidnapping, or a murder trial.

This is about a photographer who loved autumn and loved children, and over many decades, formed bonds with strangers who ordinarily distrusted outsiders, the people they called “the English.”

Bill Coleman, a legendary photographer in Pennsylvania, died last week at 88.  He leaves behind family and friends and a treasure trove of photography.  Specifically, his legacy contains thousands of images of an Amish village and the people who inhabit it. As the obituary in the Centre Daily Times put it:

“He became known internationally for his Amish images: buggies on tree-shaded lanes, children playing in schoolyards, young men walking in a cluster down a road. Throughout his long and successful career, starting with his first State College studio in 1951, he strove to capture the essence of people — from the student and local resident portraits of his early years to the Amish and European scenes that defined his later work.”

Photography: forming a bond
Bill Coleman and an Amish child, the subject of many of his photographs

I’ve known Bill for more than 30 years. In 1985, he snapped this photo of my son Mike and me on the Penn State campus.

Photography: Father & Son
Paul Levine, Class of 1969, and Michael Levine, Class of 2003, at Penn State

One day after the photo was taken, Penn State would defeat Alabama 19-7 in football and go on to an undefeated regular season that would end with a heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Photography as Art

But, just as this post is not about books, it’s also not about football or nostalgia or my family. It’s about a warm and generous and immensely talented man. His photography was truly art.

I own several of Bill’s Amish photographs, including this one from his “barn-raising” series.

Photography: A Barn-Raising
All in a Day’s Work. Amish villagers using only hand tools build a barn.

Yes, the photo calls to mind the Harrison Ford movie, “Witness,”set in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. For an excellent synopsis of “Witness,” which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, check out the Wikipedia article here.

I have many favorites among Bill’s photos. There’s this iconic shot of three barefoot Amish girls skipping along a dirt road.

Photography: Three Amish Girls
You can almost hear the girls singing as they skip along.

Then there is the Amish village in the snow.

Photography: The Village in Winter
The Village in Winter

Photography That Stirs Emotions

Perhaps Bill’s best known photograph is “Fall Splendor.” I never tire of looking at it. The photo provokes nostalgia and a yearning for simpler times.

Photography as Art
Photography as Art: One of Bill Coleman’s Iconic shots.

I think Bill loved Autumn more than any other season. His photo of the hills ablaze with colors — and cows in the foreground — reminds me so much of my early years growing up in central Pennsylvania.

Photography: Autumn Colors
The Hills in Autumn

Most of all, Bill loved the kids. This photo is simply titled “Sharing.”

Photography: Sharing
It’s not a painting; it’s a Bill Coleman photograph.

Bill even loved the rowdy kids, who might, on occasion, playfully shoot him the bird. Yes, even Amish kids!

Photography: Shooting the bird
Even Amish kids can show a little rebellion.

You can check out all of Bill Coleman’s photography on his website, which is aptly titled, Amish Photos.

Paul Levine

Mystery Books Hard-Boiled: From Spade to Lassiter

By Paul Levine

This question recently appeared on Facebook: “Who’s your favorite character in hard-boiled fiction?”

The answers were smart and reflected knowledge of both classic and post-modern noir crime fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were among the answers. So, too, of course was Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. How could he not be an icon of hard-boiled mystery books with lines like this from “The Maltese Falcon?”

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.”

Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Sam Spade
In the field of mystery books, a hero doesn’t get  any more hard-boiled than Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

More contemporary tough guys like Dave Robicheaux from James Lee Burke’s mystery novels, Matt Scudder from Lawrence Block and Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley were also on the list. So, too, were Spenser and Travis McGee. I think those two iconic tough guys display a tad too much sentimentality to be considered characters of old-school hard-boiled mystery books, but no one can deny that Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald created protagonists who will live forever. The occasional female character also cropped up. Lisbeth Salander, from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, made an appearance, as did Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.  Hard-boiled babes, as it were.

Wikipedia defines hard-boiled fiction as:

“[A] literary genre sharing the setting with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehension, horror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions.”

Can Heroes of Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Have Tender Hearts?

One answer on Facebook blindsided me. That was Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer in 10 of my mystery books, including the recently released “State vs. Lassiter.”

Funny thing is, just as with Spenser and Travis McGee, Jake never seemed that hard-boiled to me. Oh, there’s the occasional tough-guy line: “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

Then he’s occasionally getting punched out, digging up graves, and flirting with disbarment.

But is that enough? I always thought he had a hard bark but a tender heart. To determine whether Jake is hard-boiled or merely cynical, I recently had a not-too-friendly conversation with him:

Paul: You look like you’re still in shape to play for the Miami Dolphins. How do you do it?

Jake: Being fictional helps. By the way, you look like pelican crap.

Paul: You’re just peeved because I got you indicted for murder in the new book.

Jake: I don’t get “peeved.” I get pissed, and when I do, someone gets decked.

Paul: Let me ask you a tough question.

Jake: Take your best shot, scribbler.

Paul: You’ve been called many things. “Shyster.” “Mouthpiece.” “Shark.” But murderer?

Jake: I’m not bad. You just write me that way.

Paul: Okay, in “State vs. Lassiter,” your client’s money goes missing…

Jake: I never stole from a client, bribed a judge, or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Paul: How’s that?

Jake: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.

Hard-boiled mystery books Jake Lassiter
Mystery Books: Is “State vs. Lassiter”  hard-boiled crime fiction or a legal thriller or both?

Paul: Okay, at the start of the book, you’re having an affair with a beautiful woman who also happens to be your banker.

Jake: So sue me. Women think I look like a young Harrison Ford.

Paul: One keystroke, I’ll turn you into an old Henry Ford. You and your lady are having a fancy dinner on Miami Beach. She threatens to turn you in for skimming client funds, and next thing we know, she’s dead…in your hotel suite.

Jake: Is there a question in there, counselor?

Paul: What happened?

Jake: I take the Fifth. Ever heard of it?

Paul: You go on trial for murder.

Jake: Hold your horses. No spoilers!

Paul: “Hold your horses?” What are you, an extra in “Gunsmoke?”

Jake: Sorry if I’m not hip enough for you, scribbler. You won’t find my mug on Facebook. I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t do Pilates.

Paul: So you’re not trendy. You’re not a Yuppie.

Jake: I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a Chardonnay and paté world.

Paul: You’re a throwback, then?

Jake: If that’s what you call someone with old friends, old habits, and old values.

Paul: Bring us up to date. You first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990.

Jake: Yeah, and Hollywood made a TV movie with Gerald McRaney. My ass is better looking than him.

Paul: Who should play you in a movie?

Jake: Easy. The Duke.

Paul: John Wayne? You’re kidding.

Jake: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.” Sort of sums it up, don’t it?

Paul: “State vs. Lassiter” is the tenth in a series of mystery books. But you’re facing life in prison. Is this the end?

Jake: Not entirely up to me, is it scribbler?

Paul: Last question. Do you consider yourself hard-boiled?

Jake: (Reaches across the table and pops Paul with a left jab. Ka-pow!). What do you think?

Paul: Ouch! You’ll pay for this, Jake.  Wait till the next book.
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“State vs. Lassiter” is available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook from Amazon Books.

Best Novels vs. Favorite Novels

 

By Paul Levine

Did anyone ever ask Herman Melville which was a better book, “Moby-Dick” or “Billy Budd, Sailor?”

No, I’m not comparing myself with Melville. For one thing, he had a big, bushy beard. For another, I get seasick.

Still, I’m always fascinated when readers ask, “What’s the best book you’ve written?”

(Sticklers will likely say that no one asked Melville that question because “Billy Budd” was unfinished at his death and not published for another 30 years, but you get my point).

What were Herman Melville's best novels?
Herman Melville: What were his best novels? Who is to say?

When asked about my best novels or favorite novels, I usually give a smart-ass reply. “Who’s your favorite child?” That either gets a laugh or a promise never to buy another of my books. So today, I’m going to be serious and talk about the issue of best novels versus favorite novels.

First, disregarding the question about my own work, I have lots of “favorites,” including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Big Sleep,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Presumed Innocent,” and a bunch of others I can’t remember off the top of my head. Are they the best novels I’ve read? I can’t say. But they’ve stayed with me…in some cases for more than 40 years.

"The Grapes of Wrath"  Is it one of the best novels of all time
Is “The Grapes of Wrath” One of the Best Novels of All Time…or Just One of My Favorites?

What Are the Best Novels of All Time?

Now, what about the best novels of all time? Oh, there are lots of lists. The Modern Library names 100, with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – the bane of students everywhere – at the top. Library readers have their own list, naming Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as the greatest novel of all time. So much for popular taste! (I might complain that “Don Quixote,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “David Copperfield” aren’t on the list, but this is the “Modern Library.”)

My point is this. No survey of readers or poll of academics can choose the “best” novel, any more than they can select the best pizza in town. It’s all personal. You may love Margaret Mitchell’s iconic melodrama, “Gone With the Wind” (number 24 on the reader’s list), while I prefer Vladimir Nabokov’s satiric comedy “Lolita,” (number 4 on the board’s list). Neither of us is right or wrong.

I apply the same reasoning to literary prizes. Many years ago, on a self-improvement kick, I decided to read every novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1980.

Are the Pulitzer winners of the 1980’s the Best Novels of the Decade?

Here’s the list:

“The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

“Rabbit Is Rich” by John Updike

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

“Ironweed” by William Kennedy

“Foreign Affairs” by Alison Lurie

“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

“A Summons to Memphis” by Peter Taylor

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

“Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler

Is "Lonesome Dove" one of the best novels of all time?
“Lonesome Dove” is a Pulitzer Winner, but is It one of the Best Novels of All Time?

Who can dispute the quality of these books? At the same time, we might ask what made “The Executioner’s Song” better than Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” nominated the same year. Or “Lonesome Dove” better than Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” also a finalist. The answer is that the Pulitzer Committee says so. The choices are, by necessity, subjective. Bluntly stated, the Pulitzer winners aren’t the “best” novels of the year. They’re simply the committee members’ “favorites.”

There’s even an entry for “great American novel” in Wikipedia, which defines the term as:

“[T]he concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen.”

And yes, Wikipedia lists “Moby-Dick” as one of the great American novels.

So back to my original question. Which novel of mine is my favorite? The answer may surprise long-time readers and friends. Most expect me to name “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Jake Lassiter series. Or “Solomon vs. Lord,” the first of that series. But my favorite is “Illegal,” a tale of human smuggling, loosely based on a true story. The plot involves a harrowing midnight crossing of the Mexican/U.S. border, a child separated from his mother, and a down-and-out lawyer’s attempt to reunite the pair after the mother is held against her will as a sexually abused migrant laborer. Unlike my hard-boiled legal thrillers or my lighter capers involving bantering lawyers, there’s more meat on these bones. I like to think that “Illegal” delivers an empathetic, layered story with strong thematic material that was treated seriously by the critics. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite…for now.

Paul Levine

Legal Thrillers: Best of All Time

By Paul Levine

(First of a series)

What are the greatest legal thrillers of all time? I’m defining the term broadly. To me, a legal thriller is any novel in which courtroom scenes or the justice system play a major role in the plot.

To get technical about it, Wikipedia defines the legal thriller as:

“[A] sub-genre of thriller and crime fiction in which the major characters are lawyers and their employees. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. In this way, the legal system provides the framework for the legal thriller much as the system of modern police work does for the police procedural.”

The justice system itself is often put on trial in legal thrillers. Justice is not just delayed, but also denied…until a courageous and outgunned lawyer – like the hero of a classic Western – enters the fight.

The late comedian Lenny Bruce, who was frequently charged with obscenity for his on-stage acts, cynically observed: “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

My own character, lawyer Jake Lassiter,  has a similar view of the “so-called justice system.” Lassiter practices in Miami, where a sign hangs above the bench in every courtroom. “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.”

The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers
The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers

“There ought to be a footnote,” he complains in State vs. Lassiter.  “Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by lazy judges.”

MY TOP LEGAL THRILLER: “ANATOMY OF A MURDER”

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1958) by John Voelker, writing as Robert Traver. The plot was based on a case Voelker had handled as a young defense lawyer.  This iconic novel is a pure legal thriller centered around a suspenseful murder trial that could go either way. Defense lawyer Paul Biegler’s client admits the killing, but claims justification because the victim allegedly raped his wife. Biegler doesn’t trust his client or the wife…bringing verisimilitude to the book. (Take my word for this. Trial lawyers often don’t know whether to believe their clients).

The story raises many issues, some legal, some practical. Was the killing justified? Was the client temporarily insane? Will Biegler get paid? The courtroom scenes ring with authenticity.  And unlike many of the popular legal thrillers of the era (Perry Mason, anyone?), justice is not always achieved.

In this sense, “Anatomy” ushered in the modern era of courtroom drama.  Stated another way, would there have been a Grisham or Turow without Voelker?  And, no, I am not forgetting Agatha Christie’s earlier “Witness for the Prosecution,” the short story that became a play, and then a classic movie, where justice was ill served.

anatomy cover

A personal note here. When I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,”  my editor told me the story reminded her of “Anatomy,” which I’d never read. So, I borrowed a copy from the library and concluded two things:

1. “Anatomy” is a great book.

2. It bore little resemblance to “Dead,” except both pay homage to the art of combative cross examination.

WRITING A FAN LETTER TO THE AUTHOR OF MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER

I liked “Anatomy” so much I wrote John Voelker a fan letter, saying I admired his work and asking whether he minded Otto Preminger changing key elements of the ending in the movie adaptation. (I’d also rented the film from Blockbuster. You remember Blockbuster’s VHS tapes, right?) I received a handwritten reply in green felt tip pen. First, Voelker apologized for his penmanship, saying that he was in his eighties and his eyes were failing. Then, he admitted something I have never heard an author say: “Yes, Preminger changed my ending. He made it a great deal better, don’t you think?”

How humble!

Preminger made several brilliant decisions. He hired Wendell Mayes, a screenwriter skillful at literary adaptations. He shot the film in the Upper Peninsula towns where the story was set, instead of Hollywood back lots. He hired Duke Ellington to both score the film and appear in it. To shoot the film in gorgeous black and white, he hired Sam Leavitt who had just won the Oscar for best cinematography for “The Defiant Ones.” And then there was the cast. James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and the non-actor Joseph Welch as the judge.

Befitting the novel, the film became a classic, as was its poster designed by Saul Bass.

Film poster for "Anatomy of a Murder," perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.
The classic poster for “Anatomy,” perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.

THE OSCARS CALL ON MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER…BUT HANG UP THE PHONE

The film was nominated for seven Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Stewart, playing the defense lawyer Voelker had been in real life. Stewart lost the award to Charlton Heston for his role in “Ben-Hur.” May I officially demand a recount? Same for best picture where “Ben-Hur” also topped “Anatomy.” George C. Scott and Arthur O’Connell were both nominated for supporting actor and probably split the “Anatomy” vote between them. Neither won. Lee Remick was not nominated for her stunning portrayal of the alleged rape victim. Academy voters should probably be tarred and feathered for overlooking Remick in favor of, among others, Doris Day for “Pillow Talk.”
lee remick in anatomy

So, please check out my favorite legal thriller of all time, “Anatomy of a Murder.”  Then get the classic film from Netflix or Amazon Instant Video and determine which ending you like better.

Next time. More favorite legal thrillers. Will it be “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Or something more contemporary. John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” or Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent?”

For now, Court stands adjourned!

Paul Levine

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