Paul Levine Plays the Cheater’s Game — Mystery Scene

I recently wrote a short piece – “College Scandal: Who’s Really on Trial?” – for Mystery Scene, explaining the backstory behind my new novel, “Cheater’s Game.” The introduction is by Oline H. Cogdill, dean of the nation’s crime fiction reviewers and winner of the Raven Award presented by Mystery Writers of America.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine is among the authors who can be credited with launching the current wave of Florida mysteries, beginning with “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter.

Hard to believe that “To Speak for the Dead” celebrates its 30th anniversary during 2020.

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“To Speak for the Dead” introduced the linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels.

Seems like yesterday I reviewed that novel, captivated by how well Levine captured the nuances of Florida. And this was long before the public discovered that unique and not to bright species called Florida Man (and Woman).

Levine, the author of 22 novels, won the John D. MacDonald Fiction Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes.

A former trial lawyer, 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. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed “Solomon vs. Lord” legal capers. He divides his time between Santa Barbara and Miami.

Levine’s latest book is “Cheater’s Game,” which digs deep into the college admissions scandal.

Cheater's Game
Jake Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal in “Cheater’s Game” (2020)

In “Cheater’s Game,” Lassiter returns to the Miami courtroom when his nephew Kip needs his help. Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help wealthy kids gain admission to elite universities. The mastermind of the fraud, Ringle cops a plea to save his own hide and shifts the blame to Kip who’s charged with multiple federal crimes.

In this essay for Mystery Scene, Levine takes a look at the college scandal and its influence on his novel.

COLLEGE SCANDAL: WHO’S REALLY ON TRIAL?
By Paul Levine

“Have those parents lost their minds?”

That was my first thought when a few dozen well-educated, well-respected, well-off parents were handcuffed, perp-walked and booked for their roles in the college admissions scandal. Then this question. How many other privileged families might be bribing their kids into elite universities with fabricated resumes and rigged test scores?

When the news broke, how many cinnamon lattes were spilled by nervous parents in Beverly Hills, Napa, and Miami?

Call me naive, but I was astonished that parents could be so morally bankrupt as to willingly – and sometimes gleefully, if you listen to wiretaps—cheat, bribe, and lie their children into the University of Southern California rather than, say, Southern Methodist University.
What messages were they sending? That money and connections are the keys to success? That faking it is making it and cheaters win?

Public outrage has been fast and furious with a hefty dose of schadenfreude that rich folks are getting their comeuppance. The news media have covered the cases breathlessly, doubtless because celebrities are involved. A non-fiction book with a weighty title, “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” by two Wall Street Journal reporters, is due out in July.

A limited series on television is in the works, though I doubt that Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who have both pleaded guilty, will play themselves.

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Actress Lori Loughlin proclaimed her innocence for a year before pleading guilty.

My just-published fictional take on the scandal, “Cheater’s Game,” brings aging lawyer Jake Lassiter into the fray.

But now I wonder…were any crimes committed? Could the parents’ conduct—clearly immoral and unethical—not necessarily be illegal?

Sure, many parents have already pleaded guilty to fraud. Facing a federal judge in Boston, they expressed remorse in scripted speeches that might be summarized this way: I just loved my child so much, I lost my moral compass. And yes, we all scoffed. The parents’ regretted getting caught, that’s all.

Now, with several cases poised for trial later this year, I wonder if there are shades of gray where I initially saw only black and white. Are the universities themselves at least partly to blame? Did their admissions practices invite this type of fraud?

Defense lawyers claim that both UCLA and the University of Southern California basically sell admissions slots to children of wealthy donors. One case involves Miami investor Robert Zangrillo, charged with using bribery and fraud to ease his daughter’s admission into USC. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the “defense hinges on the theory that USC routinely shunts the children of donors and prospective donors into a VIP pool of applicants.”

Meanwhile, across town, lawyers for the former UCLA soccer coach accused of taking $200,000 in bribes, have fired this broadside: “UCLA’s own internal documents reveal that, for many years, its Athletic Department has facilitated the admission of unqualified applicants through the student-athlete admissions process in exchange for huge ‘donations’ by the students’ wealthy parents.”

Why put the word “donations” in quotation marks?

Simple. The lawyers claim those aren’t donations at all. They’re the ticket prices for admitting unqualified students to UCLA.

How does any of this affect the fate of the parents who paid bribes and the coaches who accepted them? For any of the defendants to be guilty of fraud, there has to be a victim.

The universities cannot be considered victims, the defense lawyers claim, because they routinely sell admissions slots to donors. The universities actually received some of the bribe money paid by the parents.

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My dog, Bojangles, gets a laugh from Lassiter’s cross-examination.

LASSITER’S TAKE

It’s a fascinating argument. In fact, it’s the one defense lawyer Jake Lassiter makes in “Cheater’s Game.”

Here he is, cross-examining a university admissions director:

“This so-called fraud didn’t cost the university any money, correct?”

“Correct.”

“Isn’t it true the university actually made money? Millions of dollars funneled to the athletic department.”

“We received money, that’s true.”

“So there’s no real difference in gaining admission through bribery and the university selling admissions slots to the children of high-rolling donors, is there?”

“We don’t sell slots.”

“Then, what’s the difference between bribing the university directly or bribing a coach?”

“Objection! Irrelevant.” The prosecutor was on her feet, ready for battle. “The admissions system isn’t on trial here.”

“Sure it is,” Lassiter said. “That’s exactly what’s on trial.”

MY SUGGESTION FOR REFORM

With jury trials expected in coming months, we’ll know soon enough what’s on trial.

Whether the defendants are convicted or acquitted, the universities’ reputations will surely suffer.

Perhaps it is time to erect a wall between applicants and donors, between admissions departments and the euphemistically named “development” offices. Let the applicants stand on their own and the donors contribute without a quid pro quo.

In short, let’s make higher education a meritocracy.

###

Jake Lassiter, Meet Solomon & Lord

bum rap bum luck bum deal

How did Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, get together with those squabbling law partners, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord? I’m glad you asked. The answer can be found in “Bum Rap,” which opens with a bang. Literally. The first chapter consists of four paragraphs:

The gunshot hit Nicolai Gorev squarely between the eyes. His head snapped back, then whiplashed forward, and he toppled face-first onto his desk.

There were two other people in the office of Club Anastasia.

Nadia Delova, the best Bar Girl between Moscow and Miami, stared silently at Gorev, blood oozing from his ears. She had seen worse.

Steve Solomon, a South Beach lawyer with a shaky reputation, spoke over the echo still ringing off the walls. “I am in deep shit,” he said.

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Jake Lassiter meets Solomon & Lord in “Bum Rap”

Let’s leap ahead a few pages. Solomon’s law partner and lover, Victoria Lord, asks Lassiter to represent Solomon when he’s charged with murder. Here’s their first fractious meeting, as related in first person by Lassiter:

If there is a more dispiriting place in Miami than the county jail, I haven’t found it . . . and I’ve spent a lot of time at the morgue. Approaching the jail, you can hear the anguished shouts of inmates, yelling through the barred windows at their wives, girlfriends, and homies below. Inside, you’ve got that institutional smell, as if a harsh cleanser has been laced with urine. Buzzers blare and lights flash. Steel crashes against steel as doors bang shut with the finality of a coffin closing.

I found Solomon and Lord in the lawyer visitation room. Looking at my new customer – excuse me, client – I said, “First rule, Solomon. You have to tell me the truth.”

“No problem, counselor,” he replied. “Like I tell my clients, ‘Lie to your spouse, your priest, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.’”

“Lie to your spouse?” Victoria gave him a pained look.

“Just an expression, Vic.”

“Second rule,” I said. “Don’t leave anything out, no matter how embarrassing.”

“We’re on the same page, Lassiter. Now, why don’t I just tell you what happened?”

“Third rule,” I said, ignoring his request. “In trial, don’t lean over and whisper in my ear.”

“Why the hell not?”

“You’ll distract me. Plus I won’t be able to hear the testimony.”

“You’ve got two ears.”

“I had multiple concussions playing ball and I’ve got some hearing loss.”

Solomon turned to Victoria. “You brought me a deaf lawyer?”

“Plus I’m bone tired of clients who try to tell me what to do.”

“A deaf, punch-drunk, burnout lawyer.”

“If you have a question you want me to ask on cross, just write a note on a legal pad in large block letters.”

“You going blind, too?”

“I’ll read your note and decide what to do.”

Solomon reached across the table, grabbed my pad and pen, and scribbled something. Then he shoved the pad back at me: “SCREW YOU, LASSITER!”

“I think you’ve got the hang of it,” I said.

“Now, if we’re done with your rules,” he said, “I’ll speak loudly so you can hear and slowly so you can understand. What’s the chance you can get me bail?”

“First degree murder. No chance.”

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Victoria said.

“It’s okay, hon. Been here lots of times for contempt.” He turned to me, grinning. “Does that shock you, Lassiter?”

“Not that you’ve been held in contempt. Only that you consider it a merit badge.”

“A lawyer who’s afraid of jail is like a surgeon who’s afraid of blood.”

“Glad you’re comfortable here. If we lose, life without parole won’t seem so bad.”

Kindle Matchbook deal
Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord’s first adventure.

Solomon looked as if he wanted to do to me what the state said he did to the Russian. “Lassiter, you have a remarkable ability not to inspire confidence in a client.”

I shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me your story and see if you can inspire my belief in your innocence?”

“Before I do, promise you won’t get on that white horse of yours and start making moral judgments.”

“I’m a lawyer. I make legal judgments.”

“Good. Because I remember when you were charged with killing your banker.”

Yet more proof, I thought, that our past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats. “Bum rap,” I said.

“So’s this!” Solomon wheeled toward Victoria, his dark eyes lighting up. “I get it now. You hired Lassiter because he’s been wrongfully charged, and you think he can relate to me in some band-of-brothers, soldiers-in-the-foxhole way.”

Victoria smiled. “I think you two have more in common than either of you may realize.”

“Doubt it,” my client and I said simultaneously.

“You both believe that the justice system is flawed,” Victoria said.

“The so-called justice system,” I added.

“The ex-jock is right,” Solomon said. “The system is riddled with human frailty.”

I nodded. “Lousy judges. Lazy lawyers. Sleeping jurors. The innocent go to jail and the guilty go free.”

“I’m with you on this, Lassiter.” He sounded positively delighted. “Your job is to do everything you can to win, even if you have to break some dishes . . . or some ethical rules.”

“Only the small ones,” I said. “Now, tell me what happened at Club Anastasia.”

Solomon began by describing how a Russian bar-girl named Nadia Delova came to his office, asking for help in getting back pay from club owner Nicolai Gorev. Then he got to the juicy part.

“Bum Rap” is available in e-book, print, and audio formats. Oh, that reference to Lassiter being charged with killing his banker. That’s a short novel titled “State vs. Lassiter.” Because all the Lassiter novels are stand-alones, they can be enjoyed in any order.

BUM DEAL

“They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.” —Jake Lassiter

Second-string linebacker turned disillusioned defense attorney Jake Lassiter finally switches teams. Appointed special prosecutor in a high-profile murder case, he vows to take down a prominent surgeon accused of killing his wife. There’s just one problem…or maybe three: no evidence, no witness, and no body.

But Lassiter’s used to fighting impossible battles on the gridiron and in court. After all, he’s not totally burned-out—just a little scorched.

Standing in Lassiter’s way are the defense lawyers: slick-talking Steve Solomon and blueblood Victoria Lord, who would love to beat their old mentor in court. Not to mention the specter of CTE, the lethal brain disease Lassiter may have contracted banging heads in the NFL. Drained of his mental edge just when he needs it most, Lassiter faces the possibility of losing the case—and his life—in court.

PRAISE FOR “BUM DEAL”

“Any book with Jake Lassiter is a drop-everything, read-it-now for me—and this one has Solomon & Lord too. ‘Bum Deal’ is fantastic.” —Lee Child, #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series

“’Bum Deal’ is the real deal. Jake Lassiter at his smart-talking, fast-thinking best. A funny, compelling and canny courtroom thriller, seasoned with a little melancholy and a lot of inside knowledge.” —Scott Turow, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Fascinating, fully developed characters and smart, well-paced dialogue keep the pages turning. Levine manipulates the expectations of the reader as skillfully as Jake manipulates the expectations of the jury” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The ending is perfect: a nudge in the ribs that doesn’t sell out the novel’s sinister edge. This is a triumph of mood and tone as well as plotting.” —Booklist

“A terrific setup, razor-sharp repartee, and enough plot reversal to make your head swim like an afternoon daiquiri, ‘Bum Deal’ is vintage Paul Levine: entertaining and exceedingly smart.” —Andrew Gross, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Jake Lassiter is up against his greatest challenge—an incurable, brain-wasting disease that threatens to rob him of his brilliant, legal mind when he needs it the most. It’s an astonishing, bittersweet, and daring gamble, but those are the qualities that have always set Levine and Lassiter apart from the pack.” —Lee Goldberg, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Jake Lassiter for the prosecution? What will Paul Levine think of next? How about a brilliant doctor who just happens to be a murderous psychopath? How about Solomon & Lord for the defense? How about the jackhammer headaches that may have scrambled his brain once too often? It’s all there as Levine connects the funny bone to the heart in the pulse-pounding Bum Deal.” —John Schulian, PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award winner

Levine Grills Lassiter about Lori Loughlin and “Cheater’s Game”

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Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990. Thirty years later, Lassiter is still navigating the shark-infested waters of the justice system. In “Cheater’s Game,” the heartbroken lawyer must defend his brilliant nephew Kip who’s charged as an imposter, taking entrance exams for students in the true-to-life college admissions scandal.

Paul: Earlier today, actress Lori Loughlin and her husband pleaded guilty in the college scandal. Any thoughts?

Jake: I wish I’d repped them, instead of my nephew. A fat fee without having to try the case.

Paul: That’s a little cynical. What about your quest for justice?

Jake: Justice doesn’t put pork chops on the table.

Paul: So why did they plead guilty after claiming innocence for the past year?

Jake: Because their lawyers aren’t idiots. They knew that jurors would find their clients to be rich, arrogant liars who thought they could game the system.

Paul: Are you saying that a defendant’s personality affects a trial’s outcome?

Jake: Duh! It’s Trial Practice 101.

Paul: So you would have plead out Lori Loughlin in return for a couple months prison time, rather than risk a trial?

Jake: Maybe not. Maybe, I’d put her on the stand, but not in designer duds. She’d admit everything and cry – actress tears – and say she’s sorry. Then, in closing argument I’d ask for a “Texas verdict.”

Paul: Which is?

Jake: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

Paul: Okay, back to “Cheater’s Game,” I thought you’d retired, but here you are, back in the courtroom.

Jake: Don’t blame me, Scribbler. I hung up my briefcase after “Bum Deal,” but you put me to work again.

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Lassiter thought he’d hung up his briefcase after “Bum Deal.”

Paul: Admit it, Jake. You missed the combat of a criminal trial.

Jake: That’s your fantasy, Desk Jockey. Mine is to snooze in a hammock, drink tequila, and feed the peacocks.

Paul: You came back because your nephew Kip got in trouble. The boy you raised as your own son. That had to be painful.

Jake: I thought I’d taught Kip ethics and values, but I failed. I let him down.

“You release your child into the world, like launching a toy sailboat in a pond. Except the world is not a placid pond. More often, it is a raging sea, and life a perfect storm. You cannot prepare the child because your own personal crises, traumas and failures are just that, your own. Your child, as you will belatedly learn, is not you.” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

Paul: There’s a lot of blame to go around in the college scandal.

Jake: I don’t understand it. Why would parents cheat to get their kids into so-called elite universities? Don’t they realize they’re saying, “You can’t make it on your own? And your only honors will be summa cum fraud.”

“In a society without shame, where faking it is making it and deceit trumps virtue, integrity is for losers and cheaters win. Fairness? Forget about it! A meritocracy? In your dreams! Earn your diploma? Why bother, when you can buy it?” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

Paul: Yet, you plead your nephew “not guilty” and defend him in federal court when you know he took students’ SAT exams for big bucks?

Jake: All these years, Scribbler, and you’re still clueless about the justice system. My job is to force the government to prove its case.

Paul: Speaking of “years,” you were 40 in “To Speak for the Dead.” Thirty years later, you’re 60. How does that work?

Jake: Being fictional helps. Say, how are things at the Old Writers’ Home?

Paul: Forget about me. How’s your health? Your headaches, your memory problems.

Jake: You’re the punk who gave me chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I didn’t think you could even spell it.

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The violent sport of pro football.

Paul: Sorry about all those concussions at Penn State and with the Miami Dolphins. But it did bring you together with Dr. Melissa Gold, renowned neuropathologist. And…your fiancée.

Jake: About time you gave me a grown-up relationship, after all those femme fatales and floozies.

Paul: News flash, Lassiter. Nobody says “floozies” anymore.

Jake: News flash, Word Boy. You’re the ventriloquist. But it’s true that I’m in love with my doctor and she’s come up with experimental treatments that might help hundreds of other former players with C.T.E.

Paul: Would your brain injury have anything to do with your bizarre conduct during Kip’s trial?

Jake: You mean my hearing voices and lapsing into a George Carlin routine in the judge’s chambers?

Paul: Judge Speidel said you were flirting with contempt.

Jake: Flirting, hell! I took her all the way.

Paul: Judge Speidel seemed miffed that you didn’t give him due respect.

Jake: Federal judges! So damned high and mighty.

“Federal judges are phantoms who inhabit marble palaces, hidden from prying eyes and cameras. They sit on thrones and are served by a retinue of clerks, assistants, deputies, and, for all I know, court jesters.” – Jake Lassiter in “Cheater’s Game”

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Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal and tangles with a federal judge in “Cheater’s Game.”

Paul: Face it, Jake. Your closing argument was unethical.

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

Paul: You basically asked for “jury nullification.” Acquit my client even though he did everything the government charged him with.

Jake: I prefer to call it a “Texas verdict.” Do you know what that is?

Paul: You just told me a minute ago. So…what was the jury’s verdict?

Jake: I’d tell you if I could remember. But you’re the one who gave me memory problems, you multisyllabic babbler!

Paul: I’m not the one who told you to use your helmet as a battering ram.

Jake: You put me on the kickoff team, the suicide squad! What did you think would happen?

Paul: So, what now? You gonna retire again or smash down the doors to the courthouse and try another case?

Jake: Not up to me, is it, Svengali?

Paul: Now that you mention it, there’s a case I just heard about that’s right up your alley.

Jake: Great. You know what I always say?

Paul: Of course, I do.

Jake: “I want a cause that’s just, a client I like, and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three, and I’m ahead of the game.” So, I’ll see you around, Scribbler.

“Cheater’s Game” is available in paperback, ebook, and audio. For more information, please visit my Amazon Author Page.

From Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman: Saints to Shysters in 55 Years

better call saul check

By Paul Levine

“In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system.” – Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

“I’m number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer.” – Saul Goodman, a/k/a Slippin’ Jimmy McGill on “Better Call Saul”

Oh, where have you gone, Atticus Finch?

Where is our paragon of virtue, our defender of human rights, our patron saint of lawyers – and parents – everywhere? While Finch is unsullied on the pages of Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (and in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film), he has been replaced in the modern courtroom by a new breed of mouthpiece.

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Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands tall, seeking justice.

Jimmy McGill, a/k/a Saul Goodman, the antihero of “Better Call Saul,” was a grifter and con artist before he earned his degree via correspondence courses from American Samoa Law School. Unwilling to leave his shady past behind, Jimmy hires skateboarders to set up phony accidents. He hustles residents of a retirement home with free food – Jello – in order to write their wills. Suspended from the practice of law for numerous ethical violations, he changes his name to Saul Goodman when he gets his parchment back. Why? The “homeboys,” he says, want “a member of the tribe” to represent them. Did I mention that his law office is in the storage room of a nail salon?

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler

Atticus Finch, he ain’t.

I’ve long had a theory that many young people in the 1960’s and 1970’s (including me) were influenced to go to law school by the notion of the saintly Atticus Finch. We pictured ourselves standing tall for justice, ala Gregory Peck in his white linen suit. We would be courageous under withering attack. We would “do good” and not worry about collecting our fees. After all, Finch’s clients sometimes paid him in chickens and beechnuts.

Then, we became real lawyers and were under pressure to bill our time at enormous rates to keep the engines of our law firms humming. We leased out our lives in 7.5 minute increments. Instead of representing the wrongfully accused and standing up to biased judges and juries, we wrote contracts for the sale of widgets or litigated divorces between equally abhorrent spouses. Or worse. In my case, this meant being assigned to defend the indefensible: asbestos manufacturers.

(For the record, I quit my partnership in a national law firm shortly after getting that “promotion.” Or, as I sometimes say, I stopped writing fiction in legal briefs to do the same in novels).

Of course, our popular culture didn’t turn from Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman overnight. In Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film “The Verdict” (adapted by David Mamet from Barry Reed’s novel), Paul Newman portrays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals. Yet, it’s a story of redemption. The Newman character is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, minions of an evil establishment.

Paul Newman as a lawyer seeking redemption in “The Verdict”

Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case on behalf of a comatose young woman. The money could turn his life around, but it would also keep secret the doctor’s malpractice.

“I came here to take your money,” he says when a check is offered. “I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it. I can’t take it. Because if I take the money, I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.”

Good for him! To achieve redemption, the tarnished lawyer cannot be paid off. Hey, Gary Cooper didn’t skip town before High Noon.

The 1980’s also brought us “L.A. Law.” The show’s television lawyers were well-dressed, well-paid, and highly libidinous. Each episode opened with a firm meeting in which the managing partner urged the lawyers to collect their outstanding fees. Talk about verisimilitude! I attended countless meetings just like those.

Lawyers and judges have rarely fared as poorly as in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987), which portrayed the Bronx County Courthouse as a place of “vast and bilious gloom.” Wolfe’s protagonist is a vain and naive bond trader who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on defendants who sass him.

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The courthouse in “Bonfire…” is a place of “vast and bilious gloom.”

The courthouse atmosphere reminded me of a Miami criminal defense lawyer I used to encounter in the corridors of the sadly misnamed “Justice Building.” Unhappy that a client claimed he didn’t have the cash promised for his arraignment, the lawyer would jam a hand into his client’s pocket. “Let’s see how much you have there!” he’d cry out, fishing for cash.

If you’re looking for the majesty of the law, don’t go near Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County. In “Presumed Innocent” (1987), the protagonist is a morally ambiguous prosecutor accused of killing his mistress. His defense lawyer uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge, instead of evidence, to win the case. Elegantly written and highly realistic, “Presumed Innocent” is my favorite legal thriller of all time and influenced my own writing. In both that book and its follow-up, “The Burden of Proof” (1990), the guilty party is not discovered, much less punished. No wonder my own fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, talks about the “so-called justice system” in his debut novel “To Speak for the Dead.” Or, as Lenny Bruce put it, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

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“To Speak for the Dead” introduced cynical lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels

John Grisham’s blockbuster 1991 novel, “The Firm” might take the prize for the most cynical of all legal thrillers. The plot involved a Memphis law firm was actually part of the Mafia. Most firms, if you don’t make partner, you’re cut loose. In this one, they might kill you. No, you won’t find Atticus Finch in the law library of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. Instead, meet young Mitch McDeere (deer in the headlights?), a Harvard Law grad who’s seduced by the pay and the perks…until chaos and murder ensue.

One salutary development of the 1990’s was the emergence of fictional female lawyers penned by real female lawyers. Similarly, in real life, law firms were becoming more hospitable to women and ethnic minorities.

Lisa Scottoline, a Philadelphia lawyer, brought her considerable expertise to “Everywhere that Mary Went” (1994), the first of a series featuring gutsy lawyer Mary DiNuzio. Mary is a young associate trying to make partner in what we used to call a deep-carpet firm. She’s being stalked, and a murder follows. The book was nominated for an Edgar award, and Scottoline’s next novel, “Final Appeal,” won the award. lisa scottoline

All of which brings us back to “Better Call Saul.” We are drawn to him because he’s an underdog. He’s looked down on by his arrogant brother, a distinguished attorney in a major law firm. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree,” the brother says, “is like a chimp with a machine gun.” And while we might deplore Jimmy/Saul’s tactics, there is something refreshing about his lawyering without the trappings of stuffy tradition. “Need a Will? Call McGill,” reads one ad. Then there’s his candor. “Don’t drink and drive,” he tells a client. “But if you do, call me.”

One final thought. If I get charged with murder, I might just call Saul. Because, if you recall, Atticus Finch lost that case. But Saul Goodman…oh, he’ll find a way to win.

(A version of this post appeared in Crime Reads).