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).

Mystery Writers Lust After Hollywood

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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.