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).

mystery writers on the Air
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.”

mystery writers love lansky
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).

mystery writers love gangsters
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.

Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?

Atticus Finch

By Paul Levine

Hotshot New York City lawyers frequently defend white-collar criminals, and once in a while, the tables are turned.

So it was this week when the bigwigs of a mammoth deep-carpet law firm were indicted for “cooking the books.” No, that’s not the precise charge; it’s what the lawyers themselves called it in emails!

No Atticus Finch here
Silk-suited defendants march into court this week.

Officially, the leaders of now-bankrupt Dewey & LeBouef, were charged with grand larceny, securities fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records. In a nutshell, they lied to lenders and auditors in order to obtain a stream of loans to pay themselves and their partners millions while the firm was hemorrhaging money.

“Fraud is not an acceptable accounting practice,” said New York D.A. Cyrus Vance, in what might be called an understatement.

The SEC weighed in, too. “So pervasive was the culture of financial chicanery at Dewey’s top levels that its highest ranking officials — including the defendants — had no qualms about referring among themselves in various e-mails to ‘fake income,’ ‘accounting tricks,’ ‘cooking the books,’ and deceiving what they described as a ‘clueless auditor.'”

Which brings us to the question:

Where Have You Gone Atticus Finch?

I think we yearn for the lawyer-gladiator who battles for justice against overwhelming odds. Witness Atticus Finch, standing tall before a bigoted jury and pleading for justice for a black man wrongfully accused of rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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

Of course, that was fiction. Harper Lee’s iconic novel was also published 54 years ago. In the intervening time, the image of lawyers in popular culture has changed, and some lawyers are unhappy about it.

When “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of my series of legal thrillers, was published in 1990, a lawyer friend chided me: “You tarnish the profession with your so-called hero.”

Well, true, Jake Lassiter is no Atticus Finch.

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

Lassiter is an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” who unravels a murder mystery in the novel. As a Miami Dolphins linebacker, he was a step too slow, and he’s not that swift as a trial lawyer either. On cross-examination, he asks an expert witness one question too many and is buried in an avalanche of rhetoric. He robs a grave to get evidence, then lands in jail after taunting a witness into a fistfight.

No Atticus Finch here
The first of the Jake Lassiter series.

In “Mortal Sin,” Lassiter has an affair with a client’s wife and in “Flesh & Bones,” he’s sleeping with his client, a young model accused of killing her father. I haven’t checked the Ethical Rules in a while, but I suspect that both affairs are frowned upon by the elders of the Bar. In the current book, “State vs. Lassiter” our hero isn’t sleeping around; he’s charged with murder.

But I hardly invented this shift in focus from earnest, virtuous lawyers like Perry Mason and Atticus Finch to the modern shyster. In Scott Turow’s sizzling “Presumed Innocent,” prosecutor Rusty Sabich is obsessed with his mistress, not the law, while his lawyer Sandy Stern uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge instead of evidence to win his case. The same year “Presumed Innocent” was published (1987), Tom Wolfe entertained us with “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which a D.A. builds his career with press conferences instead of jury trials. Four years later, readers had no trouble buying the premise that a successful law firm was a front for the mob in John Grisham’s spectacularly successful “The Firm.”

No Atticus Finch here either
You won’t find Atticus Finch in this corrupt firm.

Fiction mirrors reality, so these modern portrayals are hardly surprising. The irony is that many lawyers today picture themselves as Gregory Pecks fighting heroic courtroom battles, even as they churn out endless paperwork in mind-numbing construction litigation or put jurors to sleep with year-long antitrust trials involving the dogfood industry. But dare to criticize the profession, and you’ll incur their lawyerly wrath, wimpy as it may be. (I practiced law for 17 years in both trial and appellate courts, so I feel entitled to take some liberties with my former brethren).

In a sense, it’s not these more modern lawyers who break the norm. It’s Atticus Finch who is the outlier. You want proof? Incompetent lawyers and sleazy judges are hardly new to readers. Works as diverse as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and John Barth’s “The Floating Opera” portray justice perverted. In the 1982 film, “The Verdict,” (script by David Mamet, adapted from Barry Reed’s book), Paul Newman plays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals.

Newman becomes Atticus Finch
From alcoholic bumbler to…well, almost a modern day Atticus Finch.

He is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, the minions of an evil establishment. When Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case for a comatose young woman, he can no more accept the money than Gary Cooper can leave town before High Noon:

“This girl’s screaming out for someone to stand up. And it’s me, Mick. It’s me. And I can win it. I can win this case.”

You Can’t Find Atticus Finch in the Bronx

There aren’t many stand-up guys in the “vast and bilious gloom” of the Bronx County Courthouse, the setting for “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Wolfe paints a portrait of Sherman McCoy, a vain but innocent man who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The Bronx courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on prisoners who sass him. Then there’s prosecutor Abe Weiss, who schedules McCoy’s arrest on the best news day of the week, hoping to garner headlines after reporters stopped covering his drug indictments as too routine.

In modern courtroom fiction, cynicism is the order of the day. In “To Speak for the Dead,” retired medical examiner Doc Charlie Riggs asks Jake Lassiter to rob a grave to find evidence At first, Lassiter refuses:

“I try not to break more than two or three of the canons each week.”

Charlie Riggs downed his drink in one gulp, gave me his teacher-to-student look, and said, “Just a little private investigation to answer some questions, settle your conscience. Maybe your young lady friend will appreciate you searching for the truth, kind of set you apart from most members of your profession.”

He knew how to push all the right buttons. “C’mon, Jake. To hell with your canons.”
“Come to think of it, I said, “they’re not mine.”

Why I Dedicated My Book to an Illegal Alien

Illegal Alien Crossing

“To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.” —Dedication of “Illegal” by Paul Levine
 

The following is true…with some dialogue editing.

“Let me get this straight,” the Hollywood producer said. “You dedicated your book to an illegal alien?”

“An undocumented immigrant,” I said. “A Mexican woman who floated up the New River on an inner tube with her little boy.”

“I didn’t know rivers ran north.”

Odd, I thought. Focusing on the flow of water rather than the flow of people. “Some rivers do,” I told him. “The Nile. The Monongahela. The New River between Mexicali and the Salton Sea.”

The producer licked his thumb and turned to the dedication page. We were sitting in his bungalow on the Warner lot. Outside the window, I had a fine view of the water tower. He read aloud: “‘To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.’”

He looked puzzled. That happens to people who don’t know rivers can run north. “I still don’t get it.”

Illegal Alien and her son go missing
In “Illegal,” a down-and-out lawyer risks everything to help a little boy find his missing mother, an illegal alien.

“The boy and his mother. They’re the heart and soul of ‘Illegal.’

Then I told him the story behind the story.

Several years ago, the news was filled with horror tales of border crossings gone bad. The life of an illegal alien often ended tragically.

Families heading north were attacked by Mexican bandits or robbed by their own ‘coyotes.’ People locked inside truck trailers literally baked to death. Women were beaten, kidnapped, and forced into sexual slavery. The hellish desert took its own toll, leaving the Border Patrol to rescue illegals as well as arrest them.

I wanted to write a novel set against the backdrop of illegal immigration and human trafficking, but what story would I tell? With me, the characters come first. When their lives are etched in my mind like petroglyphs on a cave wall, they tell me the story. I already had the protagonist. Jimmy (Royal) Payne, a down-and-out Los Angeles lawyer, would cross borders of his own while encountering immigrants, coyotes, corrupt cops, and human traffickers. But what was the spine of the story? I didn’t know.

An Illegal Alien Warning Sets the Dangerous Tone

On a day of blast furnace heat, I drove south through the desert, roadkill armadillos roasting on the pavement. To the east was the polluted Salton Sea. To the west, the Borrego Badlands. As I neared Calexico, the yellow “Caution” signs started popping up. Silhouettes of a father, mother, and daughter scampering across the road. The message: Be on the lookout for “pollos.” Cooked chickens in border slang. Coyotes are “polleros,” or chicken wranglers. Many of the signs were peppered were gunshots.

Illegal Alien Crossing
A California road sign: “Illegal Alien Crossing.”

Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos. Yes, welcome indeed.

I thought of Freddy Fender singing “Across the Borderline,” an achingly sad tale about the “broken promised land.” (You might remember the song — written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and James Dickinson — from the Jack Nicholson film, “The Border.”

“And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s one lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find.”

Near the border, I took a wrong turn onto a side road that dead-ended at the New River, a steaming current of raw sewage and toxic runoff that carries hepatitis, typhoid, polio, and cholera. Tree limbs bleached the color of skeletons floated in the water, which bubbled with a poisonous foam. Knowing of the Border Patrol’s reluctance to dive in, some hardy – or foolhardy – illegals swim with the current, white garbage bags over their heads to blend in with the noxious foam.

Getting out of the car, I saw no swimmers this day. But a large inner tube was grounded in the shallows. A striking, dark-haired woman in her early 30’s and a boy of 10 or so were picking their way across the rocks to shore. Backpacks, sneakers, and a gallon jug of water. Judging from the ease with which the woman hefted the jug, it was nearly empty.

I shouted out a friendly “Hola.” The mother froze. The boy stepped in front of her, a gesture of protection, the child on the verge of becoming a man. I ducked into my car, came out with a Thermos filled with iced tea. I held it up, a universal offer of friendship to travelers. They stood motionless. I walked toward them, but they started backing up…toward the river. I stopped short, placed the Thermos on the ground, dug into my wallet and placed several twenties under the Thermos. A puny gesture, given the enormity of their task.

Illegal Alien Number One thriller
Number One Legal Thriller

I returned to my air-conditioned car and headed for the main highway. Through my rear view mirror, I saw mother and son walking north along the dusty road. The boy carried the Thermos.

I didn’t know their names, so I gave them new ones. Marisol and Tino Perez. I imagined them wrenched apart in a border crossing gone-to-hell. They completed my trio of main characters. A shady lawyer. A missing woman. A lost boy. Their antagonist would be a wealthy California mega-farmer with a twisted vision of his own power.

“Illegal” is about choices. Will Jimmy Payne risk his life for two strangers or retreat into his own solitary world? The book is also about greed and corruption, revenge and redemption, all set in the dark world of human trafficking.

Story of illegal alien makes it to Times Square
“Illegal” in Times Square

When I was finished, the producer said, “Why’d you help those illegals instead of calling the Border Patrol?”

“The Bible says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this, some have entertained angels.’”

“Don’t go biblical on me. Biblical doesn’t sell, except for Mel Gibson, and he’s so yesterday, he’s last year.” (This conversation took place before 2014’s spate of religion-themed movies).

The producer looked out the window where a motorized cart was hauling two-by-fours to a set under construction. “This book got some blood and guts? Like ‘No Country for Old Men.’”

“The hero gets horsewhipped.”

“That’s good. Like Marlon Brando in ‘One-Eyed Jacks.’”

“But it’s more like ‘Chinatown,’” I said, figuring movie analogies kept the producer in his comfort zone. “The abuse of power. Corruption of the flesh.”

He seemed to think it over a moment. “Can we lose that polluted river?”

“Why? Because it flows north?”

“Because no one will believe those illegals would risk it. Just why the hell would someone do that?”

“You nailed it,” I said. “The reason for the book. The reason for the dedication. It makes you ask, ‘Why the hell would someone do that?’”

You can read an excerpt of “Illegal” here and purchase the new ebook version here.

And no…the producer didn’t buy the book.