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).

Why Does Jake Lassiter Want to Kill His Own Client?

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter has been in scrapes before. I’ve put the linebacker-turned-lawyer into lots of ethical, moral and physical jams.

Lassiter has had an affair with a woman while defending her gangster husband in court in MORTAL SIN.

He’s been charged with murder for allegedly killing his banker/girlfriend who was about to report him for stealing client funds in STATE vs. LASSITER.

Doing his own legwork defending his pal Steve Solomon in a murder case, he gets stomped by Russian mobsters in BUM RAP.

Poor Jake Lassiter

I sometimes feel guilty for handing Lassiter such a rough life. In a dozen legal thrillers, he has flirted with disbarment, death…and dangerous dames. But now…oh now, he faces his greatest opponent yet: himself.

“Thirty seconds after the jury returned its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”

That’s the opening line of BUM LUCK. Jake Lassiter has just WON a murder trial, successfully defending Miami Dolphins’ superstar Thunder Thurston, charged with killing his wife. Problem is, Lassiter believes his client is guilty and vows to do something about it. Rough justice. Vigilante justice.

Lassiter’s pals Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord are stunned. “You must have played football too long without a helmet,” Solomon says, not realizing the nugget of truth embedded in the wisecrack.

jake lassiter bum luck
In “Bum Luck,” Jake Lassiter is in his deepest jam yet.

Lassiter begins to suffer crippling headaches and memory loss. He’s even more irritable than usual. And his plan to kill his own client rattles family and friends. His bizarre behavior extends to his law practice. The State Attorney believes Lassiter bribed a juror in the Thurston murder trial. His denial – claiming he wanted to lose the case – gets him nowhere. A grand jury plans to indict Lassiter for bribery, even as he plots to kill his client.

Jake Lassiter Defends Satan: an Insurance Company

Lassiter’s life gets even messier when he’s forced to represent an insurance company that refuses to pay the orphaned children of a deceased martial arts fighter. “Defending insurance companies is like fiddling with the thermostat in hell,” he complains.

In the course of the civil case, Jake Lassiter crosses paths with Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist with a specialty in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) It’s the fatal brain disease afflicting retired N.F.L. players. Long-time readers will recall that Lassiter suffered numerous concussions as a football player, including one play in which he made the tackle, recovered a fumble, got turned around, and ran to wrong end zone. That earned him the unfortunate nickname “Wrong Way Lassiter,” something that followed him from gridiron to courtroom.

So, yes, I’ve placed my hero on a shaky tree limb and I’m tossing rocks at him. Will he fall or make his way safely to terra firma?

– Will Lassiter kill Thunder Thurston…or be killed?

– Does Lassiter suffer from C.T.E.?

– Will he lose his practice…and his life?

When pre-publication news leaked out about the plot, some readers wrote me, pleading not to kill Lassiter. “Are you insane?” one asked. “Why would you kill your meal ticket and my guilty pleasure?”

Well, it’s not as if I’d be the first author to knock off a main character. I suppose Brutus could have only wounded Julius Caesar, but that’s not the way it played out. Not to mention Hamlet, Macbeth, and BOTH Romeo and Juliet.

But no spoilers here. I’m rooting for Lassiter to make it out of this jam and hope you are, too.

For more info and to read an excerpt, please check out this site’s BUM LUCK PAGE.

BUM LUCK is available in ebook, paperback, and audio formats from Amazon. Or, if you prefer, here are the links to order trade paperbacks from Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

Jake Lassiter: More Wit, Less Wisdom

By Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer of 13 novels, is known for his wry wit and a propensity for being held in contempt. I’ve just finished the first book in a series featuring Lassiter and Dr. Melissa Gold, his fiancée and physician, and I’ve discovered something odd. I’ve caught myself repeating dialogue from earlier Lassiter legal thrillers. I don’t know why. Just like Jake, I deny having “drain bamage.”

In a prior blog, “Jake Lassiter: Wry Wit and Cynical Wisdom,” I mentioned some favorite lines selected by readers on Goodreads. Here are others I’ll try to avoid repeating.

One of Lassiter’s best-known lines comes from TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, first of the series. There’s a sign that hangs above the bench in Miami courtrooms. “We who labor here seek only the truth.”

Lassiter says there should be a footnote: “Subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, obfuscated by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by sleeping jurors.”

How about this for a lawyer’s confession? “I lose a lot. Or plead my client guilty. It’s a dirty little secret, but that’s the deal with criminal defense lawyers, even the big names. If anyone knew our real winning percentages, they’d jump bail and flee to Argentina.”BUM DEAL

Then, there’s this pithy assessment of defending criminal cases in Miami: “Buckle your chin strap. Law is a contact sport.” LASSITER

Regrets? He’s had a few. Lassiter was a backup Miami Dolphins linebacker before going to night school and becoming a street lawyer. In his younger days, he had a bad habit of choosing inappropriate women. In FLESH & BONES, he laments: “I wish I’d been faster then, smarter now. I wish I could paint a picture or build a bridge. I wish there was one woman – just one – who had lasted. A best friend and only lover. A soulmate, not a cellmate.”

Jake Lassiter has a long history of feuding with judges. He’s been held in contempt numerous times, but as his pal Steve Solomon says, “A lawyer who’s afraid of jail is like a surgeon who’s afraid of blood.” Here’s an exchange between an exasperated judge and the obstreperous Lassiter:

“Keep it up, Mr. Lassiter, and I’ll send you to a place you’ve never been.”

“Already been to jail, Your Honor.”

“Not talking about jail! I’m gonna send you to law school.” – MORTAL SIN

Then there’s this realistic appraisal of the practice of law: “A good lawyer is part con man, part priest, promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation of you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

Coming soon: A blog with the best of Solomon’s Laws from the SOLOMON vs. LORD series: “When a woman is quiet and reflective, rather than combative and quarrelsome, watch out. She’s likely picturing the bathroom without your boxers hanging on the shower head.”KILL ALL THE LAWYERS.

Newsletter: Finally, for advance word when the first Jake Lassiter/Melissa Gold novel comes out, please sign up for my annual Newsletter. More wit and less wisdom from the lawyer who believes that “no case is impossible if your cause is just.”

Are Concussions Killing Jake Lassiter?

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

“For Don Russo (1946-2014) football player, rugby player, trial lawyer, friend.” — Dedication of “Bum Luck”

In September 1970, on the first day of my first year of law school, while waiting to have my photo I.D. taken, I struck up a conversation with another student, Don Russo. Both Don and I loved college football. As a sports writer, I had written about football. But Don had played. At the University of Miami, he’d been a small, speedy, fearless wide receiver. Going over the middle, he’d been knocked around like a pinball by linebackers 50 pounds heavier. In those days, concussions weren’t taken that seriously by coaches, trainers, or doctors. A player got his “bell rung.” If he still knew his name and could count to three, he could play, concussions be damned.

Don had short stints with the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, but after realizing there were faster, larger wide receivers at that level, he settled into the practice of law. Over the next quarter-century, Don became one of the top plaintiffs’ personal injury and toxic tort lawyers in Florida.

concussions felled Don
Trial Lawyer Don Russo, before being felled by brain disease likely caused by repeated concussions.
He also played rugby on an international level where it is simply not possible to compete without suffering head injuries, including concussions. Compete he did, fiercely and fearlessly.

Don was already showing early symptoms of the disease that would claim his life when the photo above was taken in 2011. The occasion was my appearance at Books & Books in Coral Gables for the launch of “Lassiter.”

concussions and Don
We didn’t know it at the time but concussions had already started to take their toll on Don Russo (left) by 2011.

That’s Don on the left and famed trial lawyer Stuart Grossman on the right. We had all been friends since law school 40 years earlier. Don also attended my first book signing in 1990 for “To Speak for the Dead,” as shown below. Yes, we were both much younger.

before concussions felled my friend
The author with a fit and hardy Don Russo, 1990.

The end came slowly and painfully for Don, his family and friends. Frontal lobe dementia and A.L.S. with symptoms consistent with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, caused by repeated concussions. He died three years ago last month. It was then I decided that Jake Lassiter would have his own encounter with brain injury and potential C.T.E. in my new novel “Bum Luck.” After all, he’d suffered a series of concussions going back to high school in the Florida Keys, through his playing days at Penn State, and on the aptly named suicide squads with the Miami Dolphins. How does Lassiter’s potential brain damage manifest itself. How about the first sentence of the novel?

Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.

By now, most readers are aware of the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who established the link between football head injuries and the fatal disease. You may have seen the movie “Concussion” in which Will Smith stars as Dr. Omalu and runs into the stone wall of deniers at the N.F.L.

concussions on film
The Hollywood film brought home the danger of repeated concussions.

The casualty list of former players with C.T.E. reads like an All-Pro team. In fact, on one restless night in “Bum Luck,” Lassiter has a nightmare inspired by his own fears of brain damage:

I dreamed of a football game played by dead men.

Not zombies. Nothing so weird.

The men were very much alive in the game. Young and strong and fast. In their prime, but even my somnolent brain knew they were dead now.

A fine mist covered the field, so it was difficult to make out the stadium, but it seemed to be the Orange Bowl, as long gone as the players. Earl Morrall, with his crew cut and square jaw, wearing a vintage Dolphins’ jersey, lofted a perfect pass to Frank Gifford, the golden boy, in a Giants’ uniform. Gifford juked past Dave Duerson, in Bears’ blue and orange, and sailed into the end zone, untouched. My sleeping mind mashed it all up, not caring about team rosters or eras. An all-star dream team all linked by brain damage caused by C.T.E.

In Lassiter’s fictional world, Dr. Melissa Gold, a neuropathologist, will try experimental treatments actually being used in the real world. As you may have read, in post-mortem tests of brain tissues, 90 of 94 former professional football players who had shown symptoms of dementia were revealed to have, in fact, suffered from C.T.E. resulting from repetitive concussions. Just last month, two living former NFL stars – Gale Sayers and Dwight Clark – were revealed to be suffering from symptoms consistent with C.T.E. (The gruesome fact is that a positive diagnosis can only be made post-mortem).

The more I researched, the more angry I became at the NFL for its shameful conduct in lying about the connection between football concussions and dementia. And when I get angry, so does Jake Lassiter. He always relishes a challenge. This time, I gave him one that might be too tough, even for the ex-linebacker with the hard bark and tender heart.

Let’s hope he makes it through the gathering fog of this dark night.

Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers

By Paul Levine

At a conference recently, I was asked, “Do you write mystery novels or thrillers?”

“Yes,” I answered with a smile.

Okay, it’s a wise ass reply. There are discernible differences between the two genrea.  As Wikipedia succinctly explains, the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plans, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. The latter situation is, of course, the setup for classic mystery novels.

By the time Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or Columbo or Jessica Fletcher appears on the scene, the murder has been committed, the mystery is underway, and the heroes use their powers of detection to nail the killer.

Mystery Novels Raise Questions

So, “The Maltese Falcon” and “Gone Girl” are mystery novels. There are questions to answer. In “Falcon,” who shot Sam Spade’s partner and why are people willing to kill to get that black bird?

mystery novels, gone
Mystery Novels: “Gone Girl” is a classic mystery, despite the cover sticker proclaiming it a “thriller.”

In Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller “Gone Girl,” why did Amy Dunne go missing? Did her husband kill her? And…oh, wait! I can’t ask the next question, because as with many mystery novels, there’s a huge TWIST halfway through, and I won’t spoil either the book or movie for you.

Mystery Novels Are Puzzles

Mystery novels are often puzzles that are solved by the hero discovering the identity of the villain…and hopefully bringing him/her to justice. But there are sub-genres. The “closed mystery” or “whodunit?” conceals the identity of the villain until late in the story, while the “open mystery” reveals the perpetrator committing the “perfect crime” at the beginning, forcing the hero to figure it out at the end.  Columbo, anyone?

mystery novels, tattoo
Is “…Tattoo” a mystery or a thriller? Both!

In thrillers, the hero and the reader generally know the identity of the villain. Often, there are chases, explosions of violence, and a “ticking clock” race against time. The hero is often in danger, as are people he cares about. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “The Day of the Jackal” are all thrillers…but all also have elements of mystery. In “…Tattoo,” a mystery is at the heart of the story. What happened to the missing teenage girl nearly 40 years ago? But the action of the story is the hallmark of the thriller.

Mystery Novels and Thrillers Overlap

All of which brings up an important point. There is much overlap in these definitions.

So, back to the question at that panel…where do I fit in? I’m going to be as evasive as a shady witness on the stand. I prefer the broad category that labels me a writer of “crime fiction.” In fact, that’s where you’ll find me in Wikipedia, (alphabetically) just after Elmore Leonard and before Laura Lippman. And that’s a very fine place to be.

But then Wikipedia also says I’m a thriller writer and a mystery writer…alphabetically just after Gaston Leroux. Who? He wrote “Phantom of the Opera.”

To make matters more confusing, I write “legal thrillers,” which combine elements of mystery novels –who’s the murderer and will he/she be convicted? — with the classic thriller that places the hero in jeopardy.

mystery novels; alibi
Mystery Novels: Legal Thrillers Can be Both Mysteries and Thrillers

My legal thrillers clearly overlap the boundaries I’ve described. How else to explain that they’ve been nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award (“The Deep Blue Alibi”), the Edgar Allan Poe (crime fiction) award (“Kill All the Lawyers”), the Shamus (private detective) Award (“State vs. Lassiter”) and even the James Thurber humor award. (“Solomon vs. Lord.”)

So, bottom line…don’t worry about labels. Read what you enjoy. Mystery, thriller, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are pretty mysterious, too. Until next time…

Paul Levine