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. [Update: Twenty-one more novels including Bum Deal (2018) and Cheater’s Game (2020)]. 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.

“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

Hard-Boiled Dialogue: From Philip Marlowe to Jake Lassiter

hard-boiled PI

Hard-boiled dialogue…the literary equivalent of a quick punch to the gut.

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Those hard-boiled lines come from the mind of tough-guy P.I. Philip Marlowe, which is to say from author Raymond Chandler. You’ll find the first one in Farewell My Lovely and the second in The Big Sleep, classics of the noir genre.

hard-boiled Bogey
Humphrey Bogart was plenty hard-boiled as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”

Many consider Chandler to be one of the founders of “hard-boiled crime fiction” featuring the weathered, world-weary and cynical private eye. However…

Hard-Boiled Can Be Humorous, Too

Hard-boiled dialogue is certainly an element of tough-guy crime fiction. But a line can be hard-boiled and humorous, too. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the villains are Nazi spies, so it’s a serious drama…but with humorous interludes. Here’s an exchange between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman:

“Don’t you need a coat?” Grant asks.

“You’ll do,” Bergman replies.

hard-boiled Notorious
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exchange hard-boiled, sometimes humorous lines in “Notorious.”

Hard-Boiled? Tough Bark with a Tender Heart

All this came to mind when a reader told me that a baker’s dozen of hard-boiled quotes from my Jake Lassiter and Solomon vs. Lord books are posted on Goodreads, one of the most entertaining and informative readers’ websites.

Often Lassiter is equal parts sly and hard-boiled. The ex-second-string NFL linebacker turned renegade lawyer has a tough bark but a tender heart. Still, he shares some rueful cynicism with earlier heroes of crime fiction, and he does dispense hard-bitten lines.

“I’m a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world. I’m as health conscious as the next guy, as long as the next guy is sitting on a bar stool.” – FALSE DAWN

hard-boiled false dawn
Jake Lassiter cracks wise and hard-boiled in “False Dawn”

“I stood there, 230 pounds of ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, leaning against the faded walnut rail of the witness stand, home to a million sweaty palms.” – TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD

“A good lawyer is part con man, part priest…promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation if you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter
Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter finds himself behind bars in “State vs. Lassiter.”

Old Heraclitus Had it Right: “Character is Destiny”

Heraclitus wrote that “character is destiny,” which is a pretty nifty line. If he hadn’t died 2,500 years ago, he could probably get a job writing for NCIS. I’d add this corollary to Herac’s three words of wisdom: “Dialogue reveals character.” I’ve long believed that it’s better to reveal your protagonist’s character traits through his or her own voice, rather than clunky narration. I call these unspoken thoughts “internal dialogue.” Wikipedia uses the phrase “self-talk.”

From the quotes above, you might already have a feel for Jake Lassiter, even if you’ve never read any of the ten books in the series. He’s the guy they call “Last Chance Lassiter,” because he takes on impossible cases no other lawyer will touch. On the other hand, sometimes he turns down a case:

“I could have used the work, but I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three and you’re ahead of the game.” – FLESH AND BONES

While defending a murder trial:

“At the prosecution table, Flagler gave me his Ivy League snicker. If I wanted, I could dangle him out the courtroom window by his ankles. But then, I was picking up penalties for late hits while he was singing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. I’m proud of my night school diploma. Top half of the bottom third of my class.” – LASSITER

And finally from Lassiter, on the practice of law:

“We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”FOOL ME TWICE

But let’s close with a Raymond Chandler classic from the short story Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

Yikes!

Paul Levine

You can watch Paul’s video interviews (including one about dialogue), learn about bargain books, and make purchases on the Paul Levine Amazon Author Page.

Courtroom Drama: Trials & Errors

courtroom drama

By Paul Levine

In 17 years as a trial lawyer, I saw a lot of courtroom drama. But I never witnessed a judge shouting “Order in the court!” Still, that hasn’t stopped me from writing scenes in which the judge angrily silences an unruly mob, his gavel echoing like a rifle shot.

I’ve taken liberties, but mostly small ones. Nothing irritates me more than a courtroom scene that’s dead wrong. Recently, I was skimming a promising debut novel that involves a murder trial.

“Does the prosecution intend to call the defendant to testify?” the judge asks.

Maybe if we’re in China, I thought.

In the U.S.A., there’s the little matter of the Fifth Amendment. The choice to testify belongs solely to the defendant. The prosecution cannot call the defendant to testify.

The Worst Courtroom Drama in History

The prize for Most Ludicrous Courtroom Drama Ever goes to the film “Double Jeopardy,” a 1999 Ashley Judd potboiler.

courtroom drama potboiler
Courtroom Drama: Ashley Judd has a foolproof way to get away with murder…but it would never work.

A woman convicted of killing her husband gets early release from prison and discovers her hubby had faked his death and is still alive. She decides to kill him because “double jeopardy” prevents her from being charged with his murder a second time.

No, it doesn’t! The supposed murder six years earlier is a different crime, with different facts at a different time and place. The woman can be charged if she kills the faker today. (If it were up to me, the screenwriter would go to jail along with the homicidal woman).

If you want a tough case, how’s this?   You remember the television show starring Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal, a ditzy young, mini-skirted lawyer.  Well, once Ally strongly considered the possibility of suing God.

courtroom drama ally
Courtroom drama was never as nuts as on “Ally McBeal.”

No wonder Wikipedia describes the show as a “surreal dramedy.”  To be fair, Ally actually refused to sue God on behalf of a little boy dying of leukemia. The kid came from a hard-luck family. Years earlier, a lightning bolt had killed the boy’s father. Another lawyer in her firm suggested that the lightning was an “act of God,” so they could sue the Big Guy for that, as well as for the kid’s leukemia. Who says we don’t need tort reform?

The portrayal of the justice system in popular entertainment has changed substantially over the years. In Perry Mason’s world, the D.A. was a likeable dullard, and every client was innocent. More recently, on “Law & Order,” the prosecutors were indignant and intelligent, and the defendants almost always guilty.

courtroom drama, law order
Sam Waterston portrayed prosecutor Jack McCoy in television’s most successful courtroom drama series.

My favorite character was Jack McCoy, the hard-nosed prosecutor given to confrontational dialogue:

“Your grief might seem a little more real had you not just admitted you cut off your wife’s head.”

“The last time I checked, ‘stupid’ isn’t a defense to murder.”

“You played me, you son-of-a-bitch!”

Courtroom Drama Goofs

Here are some of the common courtroom drama fallacies foisted upon us by screenwriters and novelists:

“We lost the case on a legal technicality.” Really? Is that what you call the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures?

“Put yourself in my client’s shoes,”the lawyer says to the jury.  No way! In real life, it’s commendable to live by the “Golden Rule.” In closing argument, it will get you a mistrial.

“Objection! Counsel is badgering the witness.” I don’t know how this got started, but it’s epidemic on television. There’s no such objection under the Rules of Evidence. “Argumentative” gets the point across, and it’s what real lawyers say.

Still, I had fun with this objection in my novel “Lassiter.” After the prosecutor accuses our hero of badgering the witness, Lassiter responds: “It’s my job to badger the witness. I get paid to badger the witness.”

courtroom drama lassiter
Hard-boiled lawyer Jake Lassiter gets paid to badger witnesses.

My Courtroom Drama Mea Culpa

My legal thrillers are not immune to criticism. A dozen years ago, I co-created the Supreme Court drama, “First Monday,” on CBS.  The Wall Street Journal gleefully described the show as a “moronic melodrama.” Yeah, I feel the same about the paper’s editorials.

Then there was the Justice Department lawyer who took issue with the portrayal of the Supreme Court in my novel “Impact.”   (Originally published in hardcover as “9 Scorpions.”) The legal thriller is about an attempt to fix a case at the nation’s highest court. In a scholarly piece – it had 171 footnotes! — John B. Owen, Esq. objected to a female law clerk having an affair with her boss, the newest, youngest Justice. Wouldn’t happen, he wrote in the University of California Law Review.  What really irked Barrister Owen, however, was a scene at the Court’s Christmas party where the female clerk performed a partial strip-tease.  Lacked “authenticity,” he wrote.

Owen also criticized David Baldacci’s “The Simple Truth” and Brad Meltzer’s “The Tenth Justice,” both set at the Supreme Court. He found both unrealistic and declared that “‘The Tenth Justice’ won’t win any awards for its attention to finer detail.”

But doesn’t that miss the point? “Finer detail” is not what fiction is all about. A novelist need only create an imaginary world that is real in the broader sense. Compelling stories involving the quest for justice or the thirst for revenge or a host of other inner needs can emerge from a setting that is an approximation of reality. And if all else fails, write a scene involving a strip-tease at the Supreme Court’s Christmas party.

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).

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.