My Worst Book Reviews Ever: “Author Needs a Shrink.”

worst book reviews

Stephen J. Cannell put me in my place.

About 20 years ago, I was having lunch with Steve at Bistro Garden, his favorite place in Studio City, and somewhere between the gazpacho and the cheeseburger, I boasted about a glowing book review in The Miami Herald. The legendary television writer and producer replied, “If you believe your best reviews, you gotta believe your worst ones, too.”

I didn’t want to hear it.

Worst  book reviews have to be believed, too.
Steve Cannell was responsible for “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” and a couple dozen more shows, and also became a best-selling novelist late in his career.

Sure, I have lots of newspaper clippings filled with glorious words like “riveting” and “breathlessly exciting,” but with the advent of reader reviews on Amazon, I’m also the target of some double-barreled smackdowns from folks who leave no unkind word unsaid.

Here’s the entirety of a 1-star review of BUM RAP.

“I must have been drunk when I downloaded this book.”

In my defense, I was quite sober when writing BUM RAP, which was briefly the Number One bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. But wait! That’s being defensive. I want to take Steve’s advice and listen to the criticism and learn from it. Consider this scathing remark from a female reader:

“This is nothing but rubbish written by a horny man. The story seemed decent, but the characters were unable to accomplish anything because of their animal attraction to anything that moves.”

Grrrrrr! That’s my animalistic growl. The inspiration for BUM RAP was a federal racketeering trial in Miami, known locally as the “Russian Bar Girls case.” Some of the testimony was as racy as anything in the book. Here’s a brief exchange from the transcript between the prosecutor and a Russian bar girl:

Q: Did you zip down men’s pants?

A: Yes, touch them, kiss them, anything you can think.

Q: Giving them hope that they would have sex with you?

A: All my behavior was inclining to this.

“Giving Men Hope” became a chapter title, and men’s idiotic conduct around women moved the story along, as it does in real life.

My favorite review of BUM RAP contained this curt dismissal:

“I didn’t even finish the first chapter.”

Ouch! The first chapter is exactly seven sentences long. (CLICK HEREand scroll down the page to “Read an Excerpt” to find that chapter. I hope you finish it).

Many one-star reviews make no literary judgments. Witness this short but not sweet doozy concerning FLESH & BONES:

Worst Book Reviews: Flesh & Bones

“I did not order this book.

Fair enough, but I didn’t send it to you! Then there’s this brief put-down of THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI:

“There are no hummingbirds in Germany.”

Fine. There also are no hummingbirds in THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI, which is set in the Florida Keys and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award.

worst book reviews alibi
Worst Book Reviews: “The Deep Blue Alibi,” nominated for an Edgar , has 3% one-star reviews, and all of them sting.

Some readers take the time for actual literary criticism. This reader gave one star to TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, the first of the Jake Lassiter series:

“The book is ludicrous and with a completely unlikable so-called hero.”

Whoa, that’s my meal ticket you’re talking about! She goes on:

“I also read three of Levine’s Solomon and Lord books and they got steadily worse. I give up on this guy. He not only writes badly, I’d say he needs a shrink.”

That upset me so much, I had to tell my shrink.

Another reader of TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD also questioned my mental state in this one-star put-down:

“Maybe 25 pages worth reading. The rest just stupid people and porn. Had me wondering if the author was a sex addict. Disgusting!”

Okay, so there are some bedroom hijinks, but “porn” is a little strong. The story is about a surgeon who’s having an affair with his patient’s wife. The patient dies suspiciously following surgery, and the surgeon and widow continue to get it on. The book is loosely based on a famous Florida murder trial that, like the bar girls’ case, had some titillating courtroom testimony.

worst book reviews, first novel
Worst Book Reviews: “To Speak for the Dead” introduced Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned lawyer.

Am I being too thin-skinned? Should I toughen up? Every author gets slammed. There are more than 200 one-star reviews of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, including this little ditty:

“Gives little, if any, guidance on the killing of mockingbirds. False advertising.”

Okay, that may be tongue-in-cheek, but here’s an apparently serious, punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness one-star review of the Harper Lee classic:

“It was terrible I didn’t like it at all i was so bored and stressed reading this awful book ugh”

It’s sometimes said that there are no wrong opinions, but facts are indisputable. Here’s a reader’s curt analysis of FALSE DAWN:

“One of the longest books ever.”

Hmm, the hardcover was 303 pages, about one-fourth the length of WAR AND PEACE. This reader would have given Tolstoy one star: “He should have stopped with WAR and saved PEACE for the sequel.” But maybe my book only seemed long, which means it’s my fault. Maybe I should write shorter books. Then again, when I wrote LAST CHANCE LASSITER, a 25,000 word novella, I got a blistering review under the headline:

“More like Lassiter Light.”

bum deal the final chapter

My two most recent books are BUM LUCK, which has 92% four and five star reviews, and BUM DEAL, which has 96% and garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Now get this: neither has a one-star review.

But wait a second. Those books will be on Amazon long after Jake Lassiter tosses his briefcase into Biscayne Bay and long after I’m gone. So strike my earlier comment. I should have said: neither book has received a one-star review…yet. It’s only a matter of time.

# # #

Jake Lassiter Series: Author Grills Hero Over “Bum Luck”

lassiter in kindle store

By Paul Levine

With “Bum Deal” debuting June 12 in the Jake Lassiter series, let’s look back at my grilling of linebacker-turned-lawyer last year just as “Bum Luck” was launched. The novel opens ominously: “Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.” Author and Hero trade punches – literally – about what it all means, and if you missed it, “Bum Luck” is on sale this month at the ridiculous price of $1.99 for the ebook. Available also in audio and trade paperback.

Paul: I see you’re in trouble again, Jake.

Jake: Don’t blame me. I only follow orders from you, scribbler.

Paul: That’s a cop-out, tough guy. You’ve got a mind – and a mouth – of your own.

Jake: News flash. I’m fictional. I don’t have free will.

Paul: Really? Did I tell you to try and kill Thunder Thurston, your own client?

Jake: I don’t remember. My brain’s a little fuzzy.

Paul: No wonder. How many concussions have you had?

Jake: Sure, blame the victim. You’re the one who made me run full speed into a goal post, splitting my helmet in two.

Paul: But I warned you not to get into the boxing ring with the Sugar Ray Pincher. Another concussion, and next day, you’re standing on a 20th floor balcony, threatening to push Thurston over the railing.

Paul Levine author of the Jake Lassiter series
Author of the Jake Lassiter series

Jake: Thurston killed his wife. He deserved to die.

Paul: The jury said NOT guilty. After YOU argued his case.

Jake: I’m ashamed.

Paul: Whatever happened to, “Jake Lassiter. Last bastion between freedom and forty years in a steel cage. The guy you call when you’re guilty as hell.”

Jake: Your words, pencil pusher. Not mine.

Paul: Didn’t you used to say, “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim?”

Jake: I’m drowning here. Can’t you see that? Because of me, a murderer went free.

Paul: Snap out of it, Jake! You were just doing your job.

Jake: YOUR job, shyster. You sent me to night law school. You made me take the Bar Exam four times. You pushed me into criminal law. I could have coached high school football in a pleasant little burg in Vermont, but no, you made me a trial lawyer.

Paul: I’ve never known you to be such a whiner.

Jake: (groans) What have you done to me? Splitting headaches. Memory loss. Confusion. Solomon and Lord think I have brain damage.

Paul: I never told you to use your helmet as a battering ram.

Jake: Once you made me a linebacker, what did you think would happen?

Jake Lassiter series
“Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.” – Jake Lassiter

Paul: (apologetically) Truth be told, Jake, I didn’t think about the future. No one knew about chronic traumatic encephalopathy back in the day.

Jake: You gave me a concussion in the game against the Jets where I made the tackle on the kickoff, recovered the fumble, and stumbled to the wrong end zone.

Paul: Sorry about that…and the fact it cost the Dolphins the game.

Jake: All these years later, the judges still call me “Wrong Way Lassiter.” Sorry doesn’t cut it, pal.

Good News for the Hero of the Jake Lassiter Series?

Paul: (brightens) There’s some good news, Jake. Dr. Melissa Gold, a neuropathologist at UCLA, is making progress with athletes suffering from C.T.E. She’s also very attractive.

Jake: So?

Paul: You’re going to meet her about halfway through “Bum Luck.”

Jake: I know that. I must have forgotten. Do she and I…you know?

Paul: No spoilers, sport.

Jake: I’m hoping she’s a keeper. It’s about time you gave me a soulmate instead of a cellmate.

Paul: Not my fault you choose women who break up with you by jumping bail and fleeing town.

Jake: C’mon, old buddy. Can’t you tell me if I kill Thunder Thurston? And if I do, whether I get away with it? And if I live or die?

Paul: The answers, old buddy, can be found in “Bum Luck,” the latest in the so-called Jake Lassiter series. Just shell out a few bucks and you’ll know.

Jake: I oughta break all your fingers so you can never type another word.

Jake Lassiter series ends
The final entry in the Jake Lassiter series debuts June 12, 2018

Paul: Don’t even think about it. Hey, what are you doing? Ouch! Let go of me. Stop before I zexxpiejnvfpreidssridkmswsk…….

(This “interview” originally appeared in “Mystery Scene” magazine in 2017. “Bum Luck” is available in trade paperback, ebook, and audio formats. For more information about the Jake Lassiter series and more, visit Paul’s Amazon Author Page).

“BUM DEAL” – Not the Final Chapter for Jake Lassiter

By Paul Levine

When I wrote BUM DEAL (2018), the 13th of the Jake Lassiter Series, I thought it was the final chapter. That’s right. I planned to bid farewell to my old pal Jake, the second-string linebacker who trudged through night law school and became a combative Miami trial lawyer.

Sure, it was a bit sad for me, but Jake’s been having these problems – memory lapses, confusion, headaches – and it seemed like the right time to say goodbye. Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist who treats Lassiter during office hours and spends humid nights with him in his Coconut Grove house, fears he may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of all those concussions on the football field.

“The past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats,” Lassiter says, and now it takes on new meaning, given his medical condition.

But…you know where this is going. Jake said no deal to BUM DEAL being his swan song. In fact, he said he’d break all my fingers to keep me from typing “The End.” Yes, I know he’s fictional, but trust me, I heard him say it. More about this in the “Update” below.

My first work of fiction – if you don’t count my legal briefs – was TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, published in 1990. The book, which has sold well more than two million copies, introduced Jake Lassiter, who early on admitted, “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

the first Lassiter novel
TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD introduced Jake Lassiter, linebacker-turned lawyer.

A dozen more Jake Lassiter novels followed, including the ingeniously titled LASSITER, in which our hero hides a shameful secret from his past, LAST CHANCE LASSITER, a prequel that reveals how getting fired from his first job as a lawyer shaped the man, and now BUM DEAL, in which Lassiter confronts his own mortality. All thirteen titles are available free to Kindle Unlimited members. Jake Lassiter lives here

In BUM LUCK (2017), Lassiter began showing symptoms consistent with a “precursor” to deadly CTE. I wrote about the issue in the blog item, “Why Does Jake Lassiter Want to Kill His Own Client?” Now, in BUM DEAL, facing an uncertain future, Jake undergoes experimental treatments for CTE, just as he makes a major change in his life, switching sides in the courtroom and prosecuting a surgeon accused of killing his wife. It’s a nearly impossible case with no forensic evidence, no witness, and no body. Complicating matters are Jake’s best friends-turned-antagonists, lawyers Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, who defend the surgeon.

Drained of his mental edge just when he needs it most, my old courtroom warrior faces the possibility of losing the case and incurring even greater brain damage when he should be seeking treatment.

bum deal cover
No witness? No evidence? No body? Big problem for new prosecutor Jake Lassiter

So…does Jake Lassiter win or lose the trial? And what’s his condition in when the jury returns its verdict? Hey, don’t ask! I’m keeping my trap shut, relying on attorney-client privilege, the Fifth Amendment, and my desire for you to enjoy the tale. But I will say this. It’s not Lassiter’s final chapter.

UPDATE: Jake Lassiter returns to tackle the true-to-life college admissions scandal in CHEATER’S GAME (2020). I’ll have more to say about that book soon.

Meanwhile, BUM DEAL is available in ebook, paperback and audio editions at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

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)

“Full to the brim with the humor, courtroom brilliance and subtle pathos that have made Levine’s other novels winners.” – Bookreporter

“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

Mystery Writers Lust After Hollywood

worst book reviews

I came to Hollywood for the health insurance.

That’s right. I lusted after cheap meds, not fame and fortune, when I migrated from Miami to Hollywood 17 years ago. And why not? A doctor’s visit costs ten bucks at the industry-subsidized Bob Hope Health Center. I quickly learned, however, that writers pay their dues in many other ways. Even mystery writers.

Before I traveled west, I thought Hollywood writers rolled into work around 11 a.m., scribbled for a couple hours, drank their lunch at Musso and Frank’s, then cracked wise with starlets the rest of the day. Like Bogart, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed.

mystery writers strike
Mystery writers don’t go on strike. Unionized television writers do. (With Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson, bringing Disney to its knees).

I quickly learned that television scribes are skilled craftsmen who work damn hard, sometimes all night while cameras roll. The writing itself is tougher than it looks. One-hour dramas employ the same three-act structure as plays and novels. Yes, it’s still the dramatic form advocated by Aristotle. Act one is exposition; act two is complication; and act three is resolution.

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: “Aristotle said that? Get me his agent.”

An overriding factor in television writing is the restraint of time. Want to craft a one-hour drama? After commercials, you’ve got 43 minutes to tell your tale. Stream-of-consciousness writers need not apply. Mystery writers who are strong on structure fare better.

I came west in 1999, sneaking into TV at such an advanced age that the Christian Science Monitor dubbed me the “oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.” I had already been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, and a novelist, so I have a track record of either taking on new challenges or being unable to hold a job, depending on your point of view.

mystery writers jag credit
Unlike mystery writers working on novels, television scribblers get immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

I began doubting the sanity of this latest move my first day on the Paramount Pictures lot. My dungeon of an office in the Clara Bow Building overlooked a dumpster behind the commissary, and my window air conditioner whined like an F-14 taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Mystery Writers Are Their Own Bosses. TV Writers Not So Much.

Years earlier, as a lawyer, I enjoyed a view of Bimini from the penthouse of a high rise on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and lunched on stone crabs and passion fruit iced tea at the Bankers’ Club. Later, as my own boss, I wrote eight novels at home in Coconut Grove, parrots squawking in a bottlebrush tree outside. Now, with kamikaze horseflies from the dumpster smashing into my window, I was low man on a staff of six writers. As well I should have been. When I got to Hollywood, I didn’t know a smash cut from a cold cut. How did I get here, anyway?

I’d been bitten by the Hollywood bug in 1995 when the late Stephen J. Cannell produced an NBC movie-of-the-week that was adapted from my first novel. I began dabbling in Hollywood long-distance. I wrote an action-adventure feature for Cannell’s company. Think Die Hard in a missile silo. I wrote the first draft of The A-Team feature screenplay that likewise went nowhere. I penned a computer hacker pilot for ABC. Five similar pilots were commissioned by the networks that season; none got on the air. I wrote a miniseries for CBS, which also was never produced. I was beginning to learn of a world where writers were unionized and got paid even though their work was shelved — literally — stacked on shelves with hundreds of other dusty scripts.

I also free-lanced two episodes of JAG, the CBS military drama. When they aired, I had the novel sensation of listening to actors read my words aloud.

Mystery Writers Wondered if I’d Sold Out.

Then Don Bellisario, the creator of JAG, offered me a staff position. I considered the alternatives. Stay in Miami with the mosquitoes and no book deal. Or go to L.A. and get a paycheck plus that free health insurance. Goodbye mosquitoes. Hello coyotes. (The four-legged scavengers, not Hollywood agents.) My friends among the mystery writers watched from afar with alarm. Had I sold out? Would I be eaten alive?

mystery writers on deck
Mystery writers seldom land on the flight deck of aircraft carriers. “JAG” writers did.

I ended up writing 20 episodes of JAG and also co-created with Bellisario First Monday, a drama set at the Supreme Court. The show, which was based loosely on my novel 9 Scorpions , this year was named one of the “ten great Supreme Court novels” by the American Bar Association Journal. It is now available as an ebook, retitled Impact. First Monday gave me the opportunity to work with James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning, three terrific actors. In fact, the entire cast was fine. But we, the producers and writers, failed when we tried to jazz up the stories.

James Garner, Chief Justice mystery writers
Chief Justice James Garner and our fictional Supreme Court.

In reality, most of the drama at the Supreme Court takes place in the Justices’ minds and is difficult to dramatize. Still, we might have been a hit, if not for our dead-on-arrival demographics: most of our viewers were between Medicare and the mortuary. After 13 episodes, we were buried in the slag heap of cancelled shows.

So was the Hollywood experience all bad? As the junior officers frequently said to the admiral on JAG: “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”

Actually, there were many satisfying moments. While TV writers remain anonymous outside the industry, an actor’s compliment on a script or several warm and fuzzy e-mails from viewers mean that someone has noticed your work. The very speed of the process — weeks, not years — from page to screen, makes the medium more intense and immediate than publishing. Then there’s the knowledge that 15 to 20 million people are paying various degrees of attention to a story you created out of a thin air. (Moments later, of course, your story vanishes into thin air).

mystery writers credits
Television credits fade into thin air in just seconds. So do many shows.

Something else, too, something I never anticipated. Writing for TV sharpened my prose skills. I believe my writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. And let’s not forget those regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits.

I have returned to the excruciating yet exhilarating task of storytelling with only the written word. Since Hollywood learned it could exist without my services, I’ve published four courtroom capers in the Solomon vs. Lord series. One of the books, The Deep Blue Alibi, was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award. I’ve written three more novels in the Jake Lassiter series. Last year, I brought Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord together with Jake Lassiter in Bum Rap, which was briefly the number one bestseller in the Amazon Kindle store. In June 2017, Bum Luck, the second in that new series, will be published by Thomas & Mercer.

There’s even renewed interest in Hollywood in Lassiter as a television series. No, I’m not interested in writing the show. I’ve got my health insurance — and my sanity — and intend to keep both.

John D. MacDonald…and Me

John D. MacDonald

This is the 100th anniversary year of the birth of John D. MacDonald, Florida’s favorite novelist. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune (JDM’s hometown paper) asked a bunch of writers — Stephen King, Lee Child, Jeff Deaver, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, among others — to write short articles describing how MacDonald influenced them. Oh, the paper asked me, too. Here’s my piece.

By Paul Levine

“There are no hundred percent heroes.”Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

It’s flat-out the best opening line in fiction. You can have your “best of times, worst of times.” You can have your “all happy families are alike,” and you can “call me Ishmael,” for all I care. I’ll take John D. MacDonald’s world-weary opening from 1982’s “Cinnamon Skin,” the penultimate Travis McGee novel. The deceptively simple sentence is not merely juicy bait to hook the reader. It encapsulates in six words – SIX WORDS! – the essence of character and the promise of the plot to come.

Cinnamon Skin, John D. MacDonald
The Travis McGee adventure “Cinnamon Skin,” by John D. MacDonald

I never would have become a writer if not for “beach-bum McGee, the big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel…unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.” JDM’s “knight errant” is a man of honor, protector of the weak, nemesis of the corrupt. And yet, he is flawed. He can lose a fight and lose his way, though never straying far from his moral center.

What a blueprint for a fictional hero!

In 1988, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, which honored MacDonald, who had died two years earlier. His widow, Dorothy, was there to accept the award. We chatted. I told her I was a trial lawyer in Miami and was writing a novel. Told her, too, that my protagonist, “ex-football player, ex-public-defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” Jake Lassiter, owed a lot to Travis McGee. She’d probably heard similar tales at numerous cocktail parties. But she was polite and said she would enjoy reading the book, should it ever see the light of day. Two years later, To Speak for the Dead was published, and I sent a signed copy to her home in Sarasota.

Weeks went by. Then months. No reply.

Late in 1990, I received a fax from Maynard MacDonald, Dorothy and John’s son, who lived in New Zealand. He explained that his mother had passed away the previous year, and he found the book when sorting through her possessions. He had read it. Said he liked the Jake Lassiter character, the mystery, and the Miami setting. And thought his father and mother would have enjoyed the book, too. I was moved and gratified and simultaneously sorry for his loss.

I went on to write nineteen more novels. I titled one of them, The Deep Blue Alibi, an homage to John D. Macdonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. One of the proudest moments in my life came in the mid-1990’s, when I was awarded the John D. MacDonald Award for Florida Fiction.

John D. MacDonald award winners
Elmore Leonard (right) and Paul Levine, first two winners of the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

I recently came across Maynard MacDonald’s fax in an old file. It had been printed on that antiquated thermal paper, and the type had disappeared. Fortunately, John D. MacDonald’s words remain bold in my memory. Profound. Witty. Wise.

“We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can’t see it all that way bore the hell out of me.”

If that doesn’t make you want to be a writer, nothing will.