From Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman: Saints to Shysters in 55 Years

better call saul check

By Paul Levine

“In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system.” – Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

“I’m number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer.” – Saul Goodman, a/k/a Slippin’ Jimmy McGill on “Better Call Saul”

Oh, where have you gone, Atticus Finch?

Where is our paragon of virtue, our defender of human rights, our patron saint of lawyers – and parents – everywhere? While Finch is unsullied on the pages of Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (and in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film), he has been replaced in the modern courtroom by a new breed of mouthpiece.

atticus finch
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands tall, seeking justice.

Jimmy McGill, a/k/a Saul Goodman, the antihero of “Better Call Saul,” was a grifter and con artist before he earned his degree via correspondence courses from American Samoa Law School. Unwilling to leave his shady past behind, Jimmy hires skateboarders to set up phony accidents. He hustles residents of a retirement home with free food – Jello – in order to write their wills. Suspended from the practice of law for numerous ethical violations, he changes his name to Saul Goodman when he gets his parchment back. Why? The “homeboys,” he says, want “a member of the tribe” to represent them. Did I mention that his law office is in the storage room of a nail salon?

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler

Atticus Finch, he ain’t.

I’ve long had a theory that many young people in the 1960’s and 1970’s (including me) were influenced to go to law school by the notion of the saintly Atticus Finch. We pictured ourselves standing tall for justice, ala Gregory Peck in his white linen suit. We would be courageous under withering attack. We would “do good” and not worry about collecting our fees. After all, Finch’s clients sometimes paid him in chickens and beechnuts.

Then, we became real lawyers and were under pressure to bill our time at enormous rates to keep the engines of our law firms humming. We leased out our lives in 7.5 minute increments. Instead of representing the wrongfully accused and standing up to biased judges and juries, we wrote contracts for the sale of widgets or litigated divorces between equally abhorrent spouses. Or worse. In my case, this meant being assigned to defend the indefensible: asbestos manufacturers.

(For the record, I quit my partnership in a national law firm shortly after getting that “promotion.” Or, as I sometimes say, I stopped writing fiction in legal briefs to do the same in novels).

Of course, our popular culture didn’t turn from Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman overnight. In Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film “The Verdict” (adapted by David Mamet from Barry Reed’s novel), Paul Newman portrays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals. Yet, it’s a story of redemption. The Newman character is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, minions of an evil establishment.

Paul Newman as a lawyer seeking redemption in “The Verdict”

Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case on behalf of a comatose young woman. The money could turn his life around, but it would also keep secret the doctor’s malpractice.

“I came here to take your money,” he says when a check is offered. “I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it. I can’t take it. Because if I take the money, I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.”

Good for him! To achieve redemption, the tarnished lawyer cannot be paid off. Hey, Gary Cooper didn’t skip town before High Noon.

The 1980’s also brought us “L.A. Law.” The show’s television lawyers were well-dressed, well-paid, and highly libidinous. Each episode opened with a firm meeting in which the managing partner urged the lawyers to collect their outstanding fees. Talk about verisimilitude! I attended countless meetings just like those.

Lawyers and judges have rarely fared as poorly as in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987), which portrayed the Bronx County Courthouse as a place of “vast and bilious gloom.” Wolfe’s protagonist is a vain and naive bond trader who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on defendants who sass him.

bonfire
The courthouse in “Bonfire…” is a place of “vast and bilious gloom.”

The courthouse atmosphere reminded me of a Miami criminal defense lawyer I used to encounter in the corridors of the sadly misnamed “Justice Building.” Unhappy that a client claimed he didn’t have the cash promised for his arraignment, the lawyer would jam a hand into his client’s pocket. “Let’s see how much you have there!” he’d cry out, fishing for cash.

If you’re looking for the majesty of the law, don’t go near Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County. In “Presumed Innocent” (1987), the protagonist is a morally ambiguous prosecutor accused of killing his mistress. His defense lawyer uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge, instead of evidence, to win the case. Elegantly written and highly realistic, “Presumed Innocent” is my favorite legal thriller of all time and influenced my own writing. In both that book and its follow-up, “The Burden of Proof” (1990), the guilty party is not discovered, much less punished. No wonder my own fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, talks about the “so-called justice system” in his debut novel “To Speak for the Dead.” Or, as Lenny Bruce put it, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced cynical lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels

John Grisham’s blockbuster 1991 novel, “The Firm” might take the prize for the most cynical of all legal thrillers. The plot involved a Memphis law firm was actually part of the Mafia. Most firms, if you don’t make partner, you’re cut loose. In this one, they might kill you. No, you won’t find Atticus Finch in the law library of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. Instead, meet young Mitch McDeere (deer in the headlights?), a Harvard Law grad who’s seduced by the pay and the perks…until chaos and murder ensue.

One salutary development of the 1990’s was the emergence of fictional female lawyers penned by real female lawyers. Similarly, in real life, law firms were becoming more hospitable to women and ethnic minorities.

Lisa Scottoline, a Philadelphia lawyer, brought her considerable expertise to “Everywhere that Mary Went” (1994), the first of a series featuring gutsy lawyer Mary DiNuzio. Mary is a young associate trying to make partner in what we used to call a deep-carpet firm. She’s being stalked, and a murder follows. The book was nominated for an Edgar award, and Scottoline’s next novel, “Final Appeal,” won the award. lisa scottoline

All of which brings us back to “Better Call Saul.” We are drawn to him because he’s an underdog. He’s looked down on by his arrogant brother, a distinguished attorney in a major law firm. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree,” the brother says, “is like a chimp with a machine gun.” And while we might deplore Jimmy/Saul’s tactics, there is something refreshing about his lawyering without the trappings of stuffy tradition. “Need a Will? Call McGill,” reads one ad. Then there’s his candor. “Don’t drink and drive,” he tells a client. “But if you do, call me.”

One final thought. If I get charged with murder, I might just call Saul. Because, if you recall, Atticus Finch lost that case. But Saul Goodman…oh, he’ll find a way to win.

(A version of this post appeared in Crime Reads).

Writing Tips — Put Your Butt in the Chair

Paul Levine author of the Jake Lassiter series

Novelist Paul Levine has some writing tips. Why is “write what you know” bad advice? What does Stephen King say about rewriting? How does Paul find so much humor in court? And why does he pay homage to John D. MacDonald?

Q: Paul, you frequently speak to aspiring authors. Any writing tips you want to share?

A: Read! If you’re still in school, study history and literature and the social sciences. Everyone should read newspaper every day. Not just blogs and social media. And read both fiction and non-fiction.

Q: And when you’re ready to write?

A: Put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Write! Don’t dream about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Just write.

Q: Do you do a lot of re-writing or are you a first draft kind of guy?

A: Someone said all writing is rewriting. I do at least a dozen drafts. Sometimes way more.

Q: Do you recommend any books with writing tips?

stephen king writing tips
Writing Tips: Read Stephen King’s “On Writing”

A: Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King says your first draft is where you tell yourself the story. Then, when you rewrite, you take out all the junk that doesn’t belong in the story. Good advice.

Q: You write legal thrillers, but your lawyer-protagonists, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord in one series, Jake Lassiter in another, don’t spend that much time in court. Why is that?

A: Where would you rather be, in a stuffy courtroom, or on a beach in Key West?

Q: Which brings us to “The Deep Blue Alibi.” In the opening scene, a yacht crashes onto a beach, one man has a spear in his chest, the other is a shady real estate developer. Solomon and Lord have a tough murder trial to defend, but they seem to argue as much with each other as with the prosecutor.

A: I used to be a trial lawyer. My wife, Marcia Silvers, is a criminal defense lawyer, and we frequently banter about cases. Hopefully, the scenes I write are as funny as the ones I live.

Q: Is it true that you based “Bum Rap,” your most recent novel, on a criminal case your wife handled?

A: Yes, the Miami Beach bar girls trial. Marcia keeps asking for royalties.

Q: So Solomon and Lord are Paul and Marcia, not Tracy and Hepburn?

A: It’s a classic genre. Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.” Hammett’s “The Thin Man.” TV’s “Moonlighting.” Two people love each other, but they also love to argue.

Q: Harlan Coben described your books as: “Carl Hiaasen meets John Grisham in the court of last retort.” Fair assessment?

A: I’ve long said Harlan is a genius. Yes, I bring humor to the legal system because I see so much that’s absolutely nutty there.

writing tips homage
Writing Tips: Author Pays Homage to John D. MacDonald

Q: In “The Deep Blue Alibi,” there’s a chapter at a Florida nudist resort. Is it fair to ask how you researched the scene?

A: Like Tom Cruise, I do my own stunts.

Q: Is the title of the book an homage John D. MacDonald’s “The Deep Blue Good-By?”

A: “Homage?” That’s French for “cheese”, isn’t it?

Q: Now, you’re being facetious.

A: That’s what they pay me for. “The Deep Blue Good-By” was the first of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. His writing deeply influenced me. You want more writing tips for thrillers? Read JDM’s “The End of the Night.”

Q: You and MacDonald are both Florida writers. Did you ever meet?

A: He passed away four years before my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” was published in 1990. But one of my first fan letters was from Maynard MacDonald, John’s son.

jdm writing tips
Writing Tips: Read John D. MacDonald

Q: Why do the judges in your books all seem a little wacky and the lawyers crooked, or at least somewhat flexible in their ethics?

A: Even though the “Jake Lassiter” series and “Solomon vs. Lord” series are fiction, real events and real people inspire the work. I practiced law in front of curmudgeonly judges, and I knew lawyers who could shake your hand and pick your pocket at the same time.

Q: You wrote 20 episodes of the CBS show “JAG.” and co-created the Supreme Court show “First Monday.” Any writing tips when working for television or features?

A: The great difficulty in writing for network television is the time constraint. Forty-three minutes to tell a main story and a B-story. You have to “write tight” and use the visual aspect of the medium.

Q: Any writing tips for those who want to break into Hollywood?

A: Marry a blood relative of Les Moonves or J.J. Abrams.

Q: Lacking that, when aspiring screenwriters sit down at the computer, what should they be writing?

A: Ransom notes, maybe. Look, it’s really hard to break into the business. Some people suggest writing a spec script. Be advised, though, how difficult it is to sell a script. Long ago, Elmore Leonard said, “Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit.”

Q: Any final writing tips?

A: Some people say to “write what you know.” But what you know is probably boring. You can always research something new. You can always travel to a new place. My advice is to “write what you love.” Because if you don’t love it, no one else will.

Grisham Books in Order and “Sycamore Row”

John Grisham, the king of the legal thrillers, has a new book out.  So, what’s new about that?  For more than two decades, Grisham has been writing about a book a year, starting with “A Time to Kill” in 1989.  We’ll consider both the new book and all Grisham books in order.

What’s interesting about “Sycamore Row,” this year’s release, is that it brings us back to the Ford County Courthouse and some characters of “A Time to Kill.”

SycamoreRow

You’ll remember that riveting first novel was a story of race, violence, and small time prejudices.  In some ways, it echoed the themes of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  (The film version starred a young Matthew McConaughey as lawyer Jake Brigance, Samuel L. Jackson as his client, who had killed two men who raped his daughter, and Sandra Bullock in a supporting role.

According to Wikipedia, the idea for the first book came from a real case:

“As he was hanging around the court, Grisham overheard a 12-year-old girl telling the jury what had happened to her.  Her story intrigued Grisham and he began watching the trial. He saw how the members of the jury cried as she told them about having been raped and beaten. It was then, Grisham later wrote in The New York Times, that a story was born.

Musing over what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants,

Grisham took three years to complete his first book, ‘A Time to Kill.’  Finding a publisher was not easy. The book was rejected by 28 publishers before Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000-copy printing.” 

Grisham Books in Order
Grisham Books in Order: “A Time to Kill” was the first

Now, defense lawyer Jake Brigance is back in “Sycamore Row” in another racially charged trial.  I’m looking forward to meeting Grisham on that familiar terrain.  Now, let’s move on to the Grisham books in order.

Grisham’s themes are clearly defined. Corruption, greed, and untidy justice permeate his work. Large corporations and Big Money exert cruel power over the weak…until a lawyer (usually flawed) takes up the cause.   This rings a bell with me. Behind the judge’s bench in every Miami courtroom is the sign, “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” You can see the sign, barely, in this goofy publicity shot of me when I was flogging my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” many years ago.

Author Paul Levine in Courtroom
Lawyer/Author Paul Levine in Courtroom. The sign behind the bench reads: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.”

My fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, examined the sign and cracked, “There oughta be a footnote. Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and overlooked by lazy judges.”  I think Grisham’s protagonists  would agree.

But back to Grisham’s oeuvre.   It was Grisham’s second novel, “The Firm,” that rocketed him to the top of the charts and spun off the hit Tom Cruise movie.  A young attorney is seduced by the pay and perks at a Memphis law firm that is actually a front for the mob.  Chaos and murder ensue.

The Firm

 The rest, as they say, is history.  Omitting the “Theodore Boone” young adult books and some non-fiction, here are:

GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER

A Time to Kill (1989)

The Firm (1991)

The Pelican Brief (1992)

The Client (1993)

The Chamber (1994)

The Rainmaker (1995)

The Runaway Jury (1996)

The Partner (1997)

The Street Lawyer (1998)

The Testament (1999)

The Brethren (2000)

A Painted House (2001)

Skipping Christmas (2001

The Summons (2002)

The King of Torts (2003)

The Bleachers (2003)

The Last Juror (2004)

The Broker (2005)

Playing for Pizza (2007)

The Appeal (2008)

The Associate (2009)

The Confession (2010)

The Litigators (2011)

Calico Joe (2012)

The Racketeer (2012)

Sycamore Row (2013)

GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER: A FAVORITE QUOTE

Yes, the man is prolific. Just typing all those titles wore me out.  I’ll leave you with a quote from young lawyer Rudy Baylor, a classic Grisham underdog in “The Rainmaker,” who takes on a massive insurance fraud case against overwhelming odds.  “I’m alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I’m right.”

Paul Levine