Four Novels That Led Me To Jake Lassiter

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By Paul Levine

More than 30 years ago, unhappy with my job as a lawyer, I read four books that changed my life. No, they weren’t self-help books. They didn’t advise me to take up meditation or yoga or psychedelic drugs. They were novels with flawed protagonists.

I’ll tell you about them in a moment, but first, let me set the scene. It’s 1987, and the senior partners at my law firm thought they were giving me a promotion. “Paul, we’re putting you in charge of all the asbestos cases east of the Mississippi.”

I was speechless, and not with joy, despite a substantial increase in income. My job would be defending a major manufacturer of asbestos, the deadly substance whose dangers had been illegally kept secret by the industry for decades. Flash back to my days at Penn State where I protested against Dow Chemical, manufaturer of napalm, then being used against civilians in Vietnam. No, I would not be an asbestos lawyer. The job would be soul-crushing, the equivalent of shoveling coal into the fires of hell.

So I quit.

Resigned my partnership.

Decided to write a book.

Yeah, that’s right. I gave up a secure, probably lifetime job to become a freelance writer. I had no safety net and two children to put through college. This is not the sort of advice you get from career counselors.

Now, about those four books. It’s astonishing that three were published just months before I sat down to write. They’re Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” Carl Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Presumed Innocent

“Presumed Innocent” is a literary legal thriller structured as an old-fashioned mystery. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich goes on trial for the murder of his female colleague…and mistress. Flawlessly constructed and elegantly written, the story also has a final twist that left most readers, me included, breathless. It’s now considered one of the classics of crime fiction.

I was impressed that “Presumed Innocent” was Turow’s first novel. (I’m not counting “One-L,” a fictionalized journal of the author’s first year at Harvard Law School. It’s still in print and recommended reading for anyone contemplating the rigors (and mortis) of law school. It says something about legal education that a book written 43 years ago is still relevant!

Turow did something very smart. Notwithstanding the commercial and critical success of “Presumed Innocent,” he did not stop practicing law. Handling many pro bono matters, including death penalty cases, Turow performed a great public service while doubtless latching onto ideas for later novels. tourist season

Just as I finished reading “Presumed Innocent,” I came across the newly published “Tourist Season.” I knew Hiaasen’s work from The Miami Herald, where his columns roasted public officials for their idiotic and often criminal behavior. (I had a short, unspectacular career as a Herald reporter before starting law school). “Tourist Season” is a satiric, darkly comedic novel in which a deranged newspaper columnist kills tourists in bizarre ways in order to stem runaway population growth and destruction of the environment in Florida. (Actually, I doubt that Hiaasen considered the columnist deranged. More likely, heroic). bonfire

Then came “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a social satire about ambition, greed, race, and class. It also has a delightfully flawed main character, bond trader Sherman McCoy, and several uproarious courtroom scenes. I learned from Wolfe and British author John Mortimer (“Rumpole of the Bailey”) that criminal trials can be laced with humor.

Around the same time, I read the fourth book, “The Deep Blue Good-by”, by John D. MacDonald, patron saint of Florida crime novelists. The 1964 book introduced the world to Travis McGee, the self-described “beach bum, big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel…unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.” deep blue

MacDonald’s “knight errant” is a man of honor, protector of the weak, nemesis of the corrupt. In “The Deep Blue Good-By,” McGee, a sort of unlicensed P.I. living on a houseboat, takes on the vicious Junior Allen, who abuses women and steals from them. McGee is not perfect. He can lose a fight and lose his way, though never straying far from his moral center.

My novel, “The Deep Blue Alibi,” nominated for an Edgar award, was intended as a tribute to the first of the McGee books. (I previously wrote about JDM on the 100th anniversary of his birth in “John D. MacDonald and Me”).

With those four very different novels residing somewhere in my subconscious, I sat down to write. Without knowing exactly what I was doing, I blended Turow’s courtroom acumen with Hiaasen’s irreverence, and Wolfe’s humor, and gave those qualities to a man reminiscent of MacDonald’s knight errant. The result: Former pro linebacker turned Miami lawyer Jake Lassiter, who sometimes walks so close to the ethical line, his shadow falls into no-man’s-land. to speak

In “To Speak for the Dead,” the 1990 debut novel that is still in print, Lassiter begins to believe that his surgeon client is innocent of malpractice…but guilty of murder. In addition to the usual discovery procedures, he robs a grave to get evidence. In the fourteenth of the series, “Cheater’s Game,” published this month, Lassiter tackles the true-to-life college admissions scandal where he seeks the forbidden fruit of “jury nullification.”

Lassiter’s continuing quest can be concisely stated:

True justice is nearly impossible to achieve.
But it’s damn sure worth pursuing.
And rough justice is better than none.

Then, there’s this. “If your cause is just, no case is impossible.”

I’d add that dubious means are sometimes employed to achieve justice. Or as MacDonald wrote in a later Travis McGee novel: “There are no one hundred percent heroes.”

(A version of this post appeared in Criminal Element).

Jake Lassiter: More Wit, Less Wisdom

By Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer of 13 novels, is known for his wry wit and a propensity for being held in contempt. I’ve just finished the first book in a series featuring Lassiter and Dr. Melissa Gold, his fiancée and physician, and I’ve discovered something odd. I’ve caught myself repeating dialogue from earlier Lassiter legal thrillers. I don’t know why. Just like Jake, I deny having “drain bamage.”

In a prior blog, “Jake Lassiter: Wry Wit and Cynical Wisdom,” I mentioned some favorite lines selected by readers on Goodreads. Here are others I’ll try to avoid repeating.

One of Lassiter’s best-known lines comes from TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, first of the series. There’s a sign that hangs above the bench in Miami courtrooms. “We who labor here seek only the truth.”

Lassiter says there should be a footnote: “Subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, obfuscated by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by sleeping jurors.”

How about this for a lawyer’s confession? “I lose a lot. Or plead my client guilty. It’s a dirty little secret, but that’s the deal with criminal defense lawyers, even the big names. If anyone knew our real winning percentages, they’d jump bail and flee to Argentina.”BUM DEAL

Then, there’s this pithy assessment of defending criminal cases in Miami: “Buckle your chin strap. Law is a contact sport.” LASSITER

Regrets? He’s had a few. Lassiter was a backup Miami Dolphins linebacker before going to night school and becoming a street lawyer. In his younger days, he had a bad habit of choosing inappropriate women. In FLESH & BONES, he laments: “I wish I’d been faster then, smarter now. I wish I could paint a picture or build a bridge. I wish there was one woman – just one – who had lasted. A best friend and only lover. A soulmate, not a cellmate.”

Jake Lassiter has a long history of feuding with judges. He’s been held in contempt numerous times, but as his pal Steve Solomon says, “A lawyer who’s afraid of jail is like a surgeon who’s afraid of blood.” Here’s an exchange between an exasperated judge and the obstreperous Lassiter:

“Keep it up, Mr. Lassiter, and I’ll send you to a place you’ve never been.”

“Already been to jail, Your Honor.”

“Not talking about jail! I’m gonna send you to law school.” – MORTAL SIN

Then there’s this realistic appraisal of the practice of law: “A good lawyer is part con man, part priest, promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation of you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

Coming soon: A blog with the best of Solomon’s Laws from the SOLOMON vs. LORD series: “When a woman is quiet and reflective, rather than combative and quarrelsome, watch out. She’s likely picturing the bathroom without your boxers hanging on the shower head.”KILL ALL THE LAWYERS.

Newsletter: Finally, for advance word when the first Jake Lassiter/Melissa Gold novel comes out, please sign up for my annual Newsletter. More wit and less wisdom from the lawyer who believes that “no case is impossible if your cause is just.”

BUM RAP: BAR GIRLS AND MOBSTERS

hard-boiled PI

“The Big Thrill,” the monthly publication of International Thriller Writers, recently grilled author Paul Levine about BUM RAP, his new legal thriller. BUM RAP brings together Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, and Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord, squabbling Miami law partners. In a starred review, Booklist calls the novel “an irresistible Florida crime romp.”

Q: Paul, has it really been 25 years since Jake Lassiter burst onto the crime fiction scene with your first novel, “To Speak for the Dead?”

A: Is that a polite way of saying Jake’s old…or that I am?

Q: Only that the Lassiter novels are one of the longest running series in contemporary crime fiction. To what do you attribute their longevity?

A: Maybe because readers grow attached to characters and want to know what becomes of them after the caper ends. In Lassiter’s case, I like to think that his values are timeless.

“I have old habits, old friends and old values. I don’t tweet or blog or order pizza with arugula on top. I don’t have a life coach or an aroma therapist, and I sure as hell don’t do Pilates. I’m so un-hip that I could soon become trendy, like skinny ties and pants that stop at the ankles.” — Jake Lassiter

Q: In BUM RAP, Lassiter defends Steve Solomon, who’s accused of killing a Russian club owner on South Beach. Pretty quickly, Lassiter begins to doubt his client’s story.

A: He always assumes his clients were guilty. It saves time.

Q: Is it true that a real federal case in Miami was the inspiration for the novel?

A: True. Beautiful bar-girls were luring men to joints owned by Russian mobsters. The bar-girls would get the guys drunk and run up thousands of dollars in credit card charges for cheap Champagne, proving once again that men – as a group – have the I.Q. of mollusks.

bum rap in kindle store
BUM RAP is the first of a series featuring Jake Lassiter AND squabbling Miami lawyers Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord.

Q: While defending Solomon, Lassiter falls for Victoria Lord, his client’s law partner and lover. That’s a problem for a lawyer, right?

A: A blatant conflict of interest.

Q: Lassiter’s ethical standards seem somewhat flexible?

“That’s called extortion, Mr. Lassiter.”
“No, it’s not. It’s called lawyering.”

Q: For a trial lawyer, Lassiter seems to get in a lot of fistfights. While snooping around that bar-girl club in BUM RAP, he gets into it with the bouncer. Is this common practice for lawyers in Miami?

A: Buckle your chin strap. In Lassiter’s world, the law is a contact sport.

“I’m not one of those lonely warriors of the courtroom, righting wrongs wherever I find them, blah, blah, blah. I’m just an ex-jock wading through the muck of the so-called justice system. I don’t even mind getting dirty as long as the stains come out.”– Jake Lassiter

Q: How would you describe the theme of the Lassiter novels?

A: True justice is nearly impossible to achieve. But it’s damn sure worth pursuing. And rough justice is better than none at all.

Q: And by “rough justice” you mean…?

A: A murderer beats the rap but takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Or it can be vigilante justice or personal retribution.

“In court, mostly I lose. Or plead my guy guilty. It’s a dirty little secret, but that’s the deal with most criminal defense lawyers, even the big names who pontificate on CNN. If the clients knew our real winning percentage, they’d cop a quick plea or flee the jurisdiction.” – Jake Lassiter

Q: What’s next for Paul Levine?

A: Mixing the perfect gin and tonic. Making ice cubes from the tonic water helps.

(BUM RAP is available in trade paperback, e-book, and audio formats. All the “Lassiter” and “Solomon vs. Lord” novels are FREE for Kindle Unlimited members, a few bucks for everybody else. This interview originally appeared in THE BIG THRILL, a publication of the International Thriller Writers organization).

“BUM RAP” Sits Atop Kindle Store

lassiter in kindle store

By Paul Levine

Precisely 25 years after his first appearance in print, Jake Lassiter is back. The book is BUM RAP, and it’s off to a fast start, ranking Number One in the “legal thrillers,” “mysteries” and “thrillers” categories in the Amazon Kindle Store. Overall, with rankings changing hourly, it’s been skittering between number four and twenty out of 3.6 million titles.

Set in glitzy South Beach, BUM RAP brings Lassiter together with squabbling law partners (and lovers) Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. Lassiter last appeared in “State vs. Lassiter,” a Shamus Award nominee. Solomon and Lord were last seen bickering and bantering in “Habeas Porpoise,” the fourth novel of their Edgar-nominated series.

In BUM RAP, Lassiter defends Solomon on a murder charge…while falling for Victoria. It’s an emotional powder keg that could destroy the defense and Lassiter, too.

Kindle Store List
A Kindle Store Bestseller

Bar-Girls, Betrayal and Murder

It all begins on South Beach when Solomon accompanies a new client – stunning Bar-Girl Nadia Delova – to Club Anastasia, where her job is to get men drunk and run up colossal charges on their credit cards. Solomon and Nadia confront club owner Nicolai Gorev, demanding Nadia’s back pay. They argue; Gorev is shot dead; Nadia is gone; and the murder weapon is in Solomon’s hand.

The key to the case: find the missing Nadia Delova. But Lassiter isn’t the only one looking for her. There’s the federal government. And the Russian Mafia. And a mysterious Miami gangster named Benny the Jeweler.

Just what is really going on at Club Anastasia? And why do all the Bar-Girls take the same flight from Moscow to the U.S.? And who really killed Nicolai Gorev? It all comes together in an explosive courtroom finale that could send Solomon to prison for life and end Lassiter’s career.

The Kindle Store Bestseller Lists

I’m writing this nine hours after BUM RAP went on general sale in the Amazon Kindle Store. And yes, it’s available as a paperback and audio, in addition to the e-book. My son, Mike Levine, a deep-voiced sportscaster, did a terrific job narrating the book for Brilliance Audio. And the idea for the book? That came from my wife, Marcia Silvers, a criminal appellate lawyer recently named one of the top 50 female attorneys in Florida by Super Lawyers magazine.

What’s the secret behind BUM RAP’s fast start? Certainly, there is the continuing appeal of Jake Lassiter. He’s “Travis McGee with trial experience,” as The Washington Post called him. I also want to thank Thomas & Mercer for its stunning pre-publication promotion that pushed both book and author into Number One status on the world’s largest bookselling platform.

Kindle Store Levine & King
Top Two Kindle Store Bestselling Authors

BUM RAP’s success also fueled sales of both the Lassiter and Solomon & Lord backlists. In June, seven of those books ranked in the top twelve bestselling “legal thrillers” in the Kindle Store. And how crazy is this? With BUM RAP holding down the first position, “To Speak for the Dead,” the first Lassiter thriller (1990) and “Night Vision” (1991) were second and third.

top Kindle Store legal thrillers
Kindle Store Top Legal Thrillers

To answer an often-asked question: No, you don’t have to read the earlier books first. Each stands on its own. If you want, you can start with BUM RAP and work backward.

So, whether you’re a longtime reader or new to the series, I hope you give BUM RAP a try and drop me a note if you do.

Paul Levine

Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers

By Paul Levine

At a conference recently, I was asked, “Do you write mystery novels or thrillers?”

“Yes,” I answered with a smile.

Okay, it’s a wise ass reply. There are discernible differences between the two genrea.  As Wikipedia succinctly explains, the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plans, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. The latter situation is, of course, the setup for classic mystery novels.

By the time Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or Columbo or Jessica Fletcher appears on the scene, the murder has been committed, the mystery is underway, and the heroes use their powers of detection to nail the killer.

Mystery Novels Raise Questions

So, “The Maltese Falcon” and “Gone Girl” are mystery novels. There are questions to answer. In “Falcon,” who shot Sam Spade’s partner and why are people willing to kill to get that black bird?

mystery novels, gone
Mystery Novels: “Gone Girl” is a classic mystery, despite the cover sticker proclaiming it a “thriller.”

In Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller “Gone Girl,” why did Amy Dunne go missing? Did her husband kill her? And…oh, wait! I can’t ask the next question, because as with many mystery novels, there’s a huge TWIST halfway through, and I won’t spoil either the book or movie for you.

Mystery Novels Are Puzzles

Mystery novels are often puzzles that are solved by the hero discovering the identity of the villain…and hopefully bringing him/her to justice. But there are sub-genres. The “closed mystery” or “whodunit?” conceals the identity of the villain until late in the story, while the “open mystery” reveals the perpetrator committing the “perfect crime” at the beginning, forcing the hero to figure it out at the end.  Columbo, anyone?

mystery novels, tattoo
Is “…Tattoo” a mystery or a thriller? Both!

In thrillers, the hero and the reader generally know the identity of the villain. Often, there are chases, explosions of violence, and a “ticking clock” race against time. The hero is often in danger, as are people he cares about. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “The Day of the Jackal” are all thrillers…but all also have elements of mystery. In “…Tattoo,” a mystery is at the heart of the story. What happened to the missing teenage girl nearly 40 years ago? But the action of the story is the hallmark of the thriller.

Mystery Novels and Thrillers Overlap

All of which brings up an important point. There is much overlap in these definitions.

So, back to the question at that panel…where do I fit in? I’m going to be as evasive as a shady witness on the stand. I prefer the broad category that labels me a writer of “crime fiction.” In fact, that’s where you’ll find me in Wikipedia, (alphabetically) just after Elmore Leonard and before Laura Lippman. And that’s a very fine place to be.

But then Wikipedia also says I’m a thriller writer and a mystery writer…alphabetically just after Gaston Leroux. Who? He wrote “Phantom of the Opera.”

To make matters more confusing, I write “legal thrillers,” which combine elements of mystery novels –who’s the murderer and will he/she be convicted? — with the classic thriller that places the hero in jeopardy.

mystery novels; alibi
Mystery Novels: Legal Thrillers Can be Both Mysteries and Thrillers

My legal thrillers clearly overlap the boundaries I’ve described. How else to explain that they’ve been nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award (“The Deep Blue Alibi”), the Edgar Allan Poe (crime fiction) award (“Kill All the Lawyers”), the Shamus (private detective) Award (“State vs. Lassiter”) and even the James Thurber humor award. (“Solomon vs. Lord.”)

So, bottom line…don’t worry about labels. Read what you enjoy. Mystery, thriller, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are pretty mysterious, too. Until next time…

Paul Levine