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).

“Lassiter” — Number One Mystery Reviewer Has Her Say

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By Paul Levine

Usually, my blogs are on diverse subjects. They range from a comparison of two movie stars’ military records: “Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and My Dad” to my endless search for a lawyer-hero: “Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?”

But today I’m turning the blog over to  Oline Cogdill, widely regarded as the top crime fiction reviewer in the country. (She’s won the Raven Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, to prove it).

Review of “Lassiter”

I’m simply re-printing Oline’s 2011 review of “Lassiter,” which marked the comeback for the linebacker-turned-lawyer, who hadn’t been seen since 1997’s “Flesh & Bones.” I might add that I’m doing this without asking Oline’s permission or that of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel or The Miami Herald, or the written consent of the National Football League. So sue me.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine brings a certain symmetry to “Lassiter,” which marks the return of Jake Lassiter, a Miami Dolphins linebacker turned hard-nosed lawyer.

Levine’s series launched in 1990 with “To Speak for the Dead,” named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by the Los Angeles Times. The Lassiter series came at the start of the wave of Florida mysteries that shows no sign of slowing down and earned Levine the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

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“To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Lassiter novels

Now Jake is back after a 14-year absence in the aptly named “Lassiter,” and it’s as if this wise-cracking, renegade lawyer never left. “Lassiter” works as a gripping legal thriller, a story of self-discovery, and a look at corruption set against an insider’s evocative view of South Florida.

And it seems fitting that Levine reintroduces his attorney by having him look into an incident that occurred early in his career.

Like many people, Jake has regrets, especially about his wilder days. One regret is that he didn’t do more to help Kristin Larkin, a teenage runaway.

“Back then, I had yet to develop the empathy for others that marks the passage into manhood,” he says. Today, Jake is a different man and he’s caught off guard when Amy Larkin shows up, accusing him of being involved in her sister’s disappearance 18 years earlier.

Amy, who was only 11 when her sister ran away, had always believed her sister dead until her father recently told her on his deathbed that he didn’t know what happened to Kristin. The obsessive Amy targets Jake since he is the only link she has to her sister.

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Jake Lassiter is both suspect and investigator in the disappearance of a young woman

Jake’s investigation leads him to Charlie Ziegler, a former pornographer turned philanthropist; Alex Castiel, a Cuban-American prosecutor who is one of Jake’s best friends; and Miami’s history of organized crime.

Lassiter Serious, Witty, and Sardonic

Levine’s energetic storytelling works well in “Lassiter” as the author manages to make his novel serious, witty and sardonic — sometimes even in the same sentence. Levine steeps his plot in realism, making Jake’s look into an 18-year-old trail seem plausible.

Jake knows who he is now as well as who he once was — “the egotistical jock with all the trappings of stunted male adolescence.” He knows that rich and famous clients aren’t about to come through his door. Still, he’s a good lawyer and trying to be a better parent to his young nephew he’s raising.

Levine demonstrates that he knows Miami by following Jake’s travels on the myriad causeways, along South Beach and through Coconut Grove. In the story as in real life, no trip to Miami is complete without a visit to Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.

Although Levine put his attorney on hiatus in 1997, the author has been quite busy, writing the humorous Solomon vs. Lord legal series set in Miami and working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, including writing 20 episodes of the TV series JAG.

“Lassiter” makes us remember how much we enjoyed Jake’s company. It’s good to have him back.
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And to that, I say, thank you and return to work on my next book!

Paul Levine

Mystery Writers Find Truth in Fiction

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

Mystery writers are hit with this question all the time. “Where do you get your ideas?”

“I steal them,” I usually reply.

Sounds flippant, but it’s true. I’ve often stolen – or borrowed – real people and events for my fictional legal thrillers. My first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” involved a physician charged with killing a patient with an injection of succinylcholine, a drug that paralyzes the lungs. Pretty inventive…except a Florida doctor had been convicted of killing his wife just that way 25 years earlier.

In real life, the doctor was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled after serving 12 years. So, in Florida, it seems, a horrific premeditated spousal homicide will get you a neat dozen years.

My path to joining the ranks of mystery writers started with covering the courts, then practicing law for 17 years. After a first stint writing legal thrillers, I spent several years working in television (“JAG,” “First Monday”) where one of my great pleasures was writing dialogue for James Garner and Charles Durning, the Chief Justice and Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in our fictional world).

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Charles Durning and James Garner in “First Monday”

As for my fictional justice system, it’s a place teeming with incompetence, corruption, and wackiness. That stems from real life, too. Mine.

A week after graduating from Penn State, I started work as a criminal court reporter with The Miami Herald. Unfortunately, having never been in a courtroom, I didn’t know habeas corpus from an bottlenose porpoise. A prosecutor took pity, showed me around, and taught me a few Latin expressions. (“Mero Motu,” it turns out, is not a greeting in Tokyo, but rather an act undertaken on the court’s own motion).

While covering the courts, I began having lunch with the prosecutor and two of his colleagues. They wowed me with their war stories, singing paeans to the majesty of the law and the high calling of public service. So sure enough, I went to law school, and my three prosecutor pals became judges. Now, flash forward 20 years. Those judges must be deans of the profession, right? Nope. All three are in federal prison, convicted of bribery, one of them for “selling” the name of a confidential informant so the defendant could arrange his murder.

Is It Any Wonder Mystery Writers Get Cynical?

So is it any wonder that I’m cynical about the halls of justice, where as Lenny Bruce once complained, the only justice is in the halls? Is it a surprise that judges in my books tend to be myopic, forgetful, and occasionally crooked? (One judge, in a lame-brained attempt to be fair, simply alternates rulings on objections. “Sustained.” “Overruled.” “Sustained.” “Overruled.”)

But back to the Miami courthouse in 1970 where, as a fledgling reporter, I also made friends with the Courthouse Gang, a multi-ethnic posse of retirees who showed up every day for the free entertainment. My buddies all knew a good story and invariably guided me to the right courtroom and filled me in on testimony I missed. The Gang lives on in fiction, as mystery writers love colorful characters.
Myron (The Maven) Mendelsohn, Teresa Toraño, and Cadillac Johnson use their unique skills to help the squabbling lawyers in my “Solomon vs. Lord” novels.

Another fascinating real trial found me interviewing aging mobster Meyer Lansky, who was charged with bringing through Customs personal ulcer medication for which he didn’t have a current prescription. In the law, the technical name for that charge is “chicken-shit harassment.”

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Meyer Lansky was always pleasant to me but told me virtually nothing.

My interviews of Lansky basically consisted of me asking him questions and him asking if I wasn’t too young to be a reporter. He seemed to be a courtly old gentleman, and I stole (“borrowed”) that part of his personality to create Max Perlow, the aging Miami gangster in “Lassiter.”

As a young man, Perlow worked in a pre-Castro Havana casino for…Meyer Lansky. (Mystery writers also make things up).

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Aging gangster Max Perlow, in “Lassiter,” is loosely based on Meyer Lansky

The last trial I covered as a reporter was a doozy. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was charged with indecent exposure for exposing himself at a Miami concert. One of the prosecutors was a mini-skirted former beauty queen named Ellen Morphonios, renowned for her ribald sense of humor. Just before opening statements, Ellen told me her trial strategy: “I’m gonna have the clerk stamp that dirtbag’s equipment and call it ‘State’s Exhibit One.’” Hey, you don’t hear that on CNN.

Morrison was convicted, then died at age 27 in Paris while the case was on appeal. While no autopsy was performed, speculation has long been that Morrison died of a heroin overdose. (Wikipedia relates several conflicting accounts of the singer’s death).

Mystery Writers love courtrooms
Singer Jim Morrison of The Doors leaving the courtroom where he was convicted.

Courtrooms may look like churches, trimmed with mahogany and exuding an air of solemnity. And sure, some proceedings are deadly dull, but there’s a surprising amount of humor between bench and bar.

In my first year practicing law, I tried a case before a colorful old judge named Frederick Barad. I thought I was doing great, but in closing argument, I noticed that a juror was sound asleep.

“Your Honor,” I whispered, gesturing toward juror number three, who was snoring loudly.

“What do you want from me?” the judge replied. “You put him to sleep. You wake him up.”

The courtroom has been keeping me awake – and entertained – for nearly four decades. These days, my job is to pass that along to readers.

For more information about my “Jake Lassiter” and “Solomon vs. Lord series, please visit my Amazon Author Page.

Finally, I’ve been tossing around the term “mystery writers” interchangeably with “thriller writers.” Technically there are differences, but that’s a subject for another day. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia lists me as a “major author” (hooboy!) of legal thrillers and a mystery novelist.