Jake Lassiter Never Intended to be a Hero…Mission Accomplished

jake lassiter muses about the courtroommage

Excerpt from “FOOL ME TWICE,” available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook. A Kindle Unlimited title.

The setup: Before Jake Lassiter is accused of murder, the world weary lawyer is plying his trade in court, defending a con man named Blinky Baroso. We go inside his head:

My name is Jake Lassiter.

I am broad-shouldered and sandy-haired, and my neck is always threatening to pop the top button on my shirt. I have a crooked nose – thanks to a forearm through my facemask – and I look more like a longshoreman than a lawyer.

I am not invited by Ivy League institutions to lecture on the rules of evidence or the fine art of oral advocacy. Downtown lawyers do not flock to the courthouse to see my closing arguments. I was one of the few lawyers in the country not solicited by the television networks to comment on the O. J. Simpson case, even though I am the only one to have missed tackling him—resulting in a touchdown—on a snowy day in Buffalo about a million years ago.

I don’t know the secrets of winning cases, other than playing golf with the judges and contributing cash to their re-election campaigns. I don’t know what goes through jurors’ minds, even when I sidle up to their locked door and listen to the babble through the keyhole.

In short, I am not the world’s greatest trial lawyer. Or even the best in the Miami office building where I hang my shingle, or would, if I knew what a shingle was. I graduated in the top quarter of the bottom third of my law school class…night division. My diploma is fastened by duct tape to the bathroom wall at home. It covers a crack in the plaster above the toilet and forces me to contemplate the sorry state of the justice system a few times each day.

Jake Lassiter in Fool Me Twice
To clear his name in a murder case, Jake Lassiter follows a trail of evidence from Miami to buried treasure in an abandoned silver mine in Aspen, CO.

I went to law school after a few undistinguished years as a bench warming linebacker, earning slightly more than league minimum with the Miami Dolphins. In my first career, including my days as a semi-scholar athlete at Penn State, I had two knee operations, three shoulder separations, a broken nose and ankle, and turf toe so bad my foot was the size and color of an eggplant.

In my second career, I’ve been ridiculed by Armani-suited lawyers, jailed for contempt by ornery judges, and occasionally paid for services rendered.

I never intended to be a hero, and I succeeded.

Jake Lassiter's new adventure
Jake Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal. (Publication Date: April 20, 2020)

On this humid June morning, I sat at the defense table, gathering my thoughts, then disposing of most of them, while my client continued to whisper unsolicited and irrelevant advice. Meanwhile, I stared at the sign above the judge’s bench: WE WHO LABOR HERE SEEK ONLY THE TRUTH.

Sure, sure, and the check’s in the mail.

Philosophers and poets may be truth seekers. Lawyers only want to win.

I have my own personal code, and you won’t find it in any books. I won’t lie to the judge, bribe a cop, or steal from a client. Other than that, it’s pretty much anything goes. Still, I draw the line on whose colors I’ll wear. I won’t represent child molesters. Yeah, I know, everybody’s entitled to a defense, and the lawyer isn’t there to assert the client’s innocence, just to force the state to meet its burden of proof. Cross-examine, put on your case, and let the chips fall where they may.

Bull!

When I defend someone, I walk in that person’s moccasins, or tasseled loafers, as the case may be. I am not just a hired gun. I lose a piece of myself and take on a piece of the client. That doesn’t mean I represent only innocent defendants. If I did, I would starve.
My first job after law school was in the Public Defender’s office, and my first customers, as I liked to call them, were folks too poor to hire lawyers with a little gray in their hair. I quickly learned that my clients’ poverty didn’t make them noble. I also got an education from my repeat customers, most of whom knew more criminal law than I did. Nearly all were guilty of something, though the state couldn’t necessarily prove it.

Jake Lassiter is a brew and burger guy in a pate and Chardonnay world.

Then I moved up – from the gutter to the curb – and these days, I represent a higher grade of dirtbag. My clients don’t pistol-whip liquor store clerks for a hundred bucks in the till. But they might sell paintings by a clever art student as undiscovered works of Salvador Dali, or ship vials of yogurt as prize bull semen, or hawk land on Machu Picchu as vacation property. All of which Blinky Baroso did, at one time or another. Sometimes twice.

“FOOL ME TWICE” is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and ebook. The Lassiter books are stand-alones that may be enjoyed in any order. They are all Kindle Unlimited titles.

“Lassiter” — Number One Mystery Reviewer Has Her Say

Lassiter cover

By Paul Levine

Usually, my blogs are on diverse subjects. They range from a comparison of two movie stars’ military records: “Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and My Dad” to my endless search for a lawyer-hero: “Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?”

But today I’m turning the blog over to  Oline Cogdill, widely regarded as the top crime fiction reviewer in the country. (She’s won the Raven Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, to prove it).

Review of “Lassiter”

I’m simply re-printing Oline’s 2011 review of “Lassiter,” which marked the comeback for the linebacker-turned-lawyer, who hadn’t been seen since 1997’s “Flesh & Bones.” I might add that I’m doing this without asking Oline’s permission or that of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel or The Miami Herald, or the written consent of the National Football League. So sue me.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine brings a certain symmetry to “Lassiter,” which marks the return of Jake Lassiter, a Miami Dolphins linebacker turned hard-nosed lawyer.

Levine’s series launched in 1990 with “To Speak for the Dead,” named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by the Los Angeles Times. The Lassiter series came at the start of the wave of Florida mysteries that shows no sign of slowing down and earned Levine the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

Lassiter number one
“To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Lassiter novels

Now Jake is back after a 14-year absence in the aptly named “Lassiter,” and it’s as if this wise-cracking, renegade lawyer never left. “Lassiter” works as a gripping legal thriller, a story of self-discovery, and a look at corruption set against an insider’s evocative view of South Florida.

And it seems fitting that Levine reintroduces his attorney by having him look into an incident that occurred early in his career.

Like many people, Jake has regrets, especially about his wilder days. One regret is that he didn’t do more to help Kristin Larkin, a teenage runaway.

“Back then, I had yet to develop the empathy for others that marks the passage into manhood,” he says. Today, Jake is a different man and he’s caught off guard when Amy Larkin shows up, accusing him of being involved in her sister’s disappearance 18 years earlier.

Amy, who was only 11 when her sister ran away, had always believed her sister dead until her father recently told her on his deathbed that he didn’t know what happened to Kristin. The obsessive Amy targets Jake since he is the only link she has to her sister.

Lassiter cover
Jake Lassiter is both suspect and investigator in the disappearance of a young woman

Jake’s investigation leads him to Charlie Ziegler, a former pornographer turned philanthropist; Alex Castiel, a Cuban-American prosecutor who is one of Jake’s best friends; and Miami’s history of organized crime.

Lassiter Serious, Witty, and Sardonic

Levine’s energetic storytelling works well in “Lassiter” as the author manages to make his novel serious, witty and sardonic — sometimes even in the same sentence. Levine steeps his plot in realism, making Jake’s look into an 18-year-old trail seem plausible.

Jake knows who he is now as well as who he once was — “the egotistical jock with all the trappings of stunted male adolescence.” He knows that rich and famous clients aren’t about to come through his door. Still, he’s a good lawyer and trying to be a better parent to his young nephew he’s raising.

Levine demonstrates that he knows Miami by following Jake’s travels on the myriad causeways, along South Beach and through Coconut Grove. In the story as in real life, no trip to Miami is complete without a visit to Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.

Although Levine put his attorney on hiatus in 1997, the author has been quite busy, writing the humorous Solomon vs. Lord legal series set in Miami and working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, including writing 20 episodes of the TV series JAG.

“Lassiter” makes us remember how much we enjoyed Jake’s company. It’s good to have him back.
**************************
And to that, I say, thank you and return to work on my next book!

Paul Levine

Legal Thrillers: Best of All Time

By Paul Levine

(First of a series)

What are the greatest legal thrillers of all time? I’m defining the term broadly. To me, a legal thriller is any novel in which courtroom scenes or the justice system play a major role in the plot.

To get technical about it, Wikipedia defines the legal thriller as:

“[A] sub-genre of thriller and crime fiction in which the major characters are lawyers and their employees. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. In this way, the legal system provides the framework for the legal thriller much as the system of modern police work does for the police procedural.”

The justice system itself is often put on trial in legal thrillers. Justice is not just delayed, but also denied…until a courageous and outgunned lawyer – like the hero of a classic Western – enters the fight.

The late comedian Lenny Bruce, who was frequently charged with obscenity for his on-stage acts, cynically observed: “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

My own character, lawyer Jake Lassiter,  has a similar view of the “so-called justice system.” Lassiter practices in Miami, where a sign hangs above the bench in every courtroom. “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.”

The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers
The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers

“There ought to be a footnote,” he complains in State vs. Lassiter.  “Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by lazy judges.”

MY TOP LEGAL THRILLER: “ANATOMY OF A MURDER”

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1958) by John Voelker, writing as Robert Traver. The plot was based on a case Voelker had handled as a young defense lawyer.  This iconic novel is a pure legal thriller centered around a suspenseful murder trial that could go either way. Defense lawyer Paul Biegler’s client admits the killing, but claims justification because the victim allegedly raped his wife. Biegler doesn’t trust his client or the wife…bringing verisimilitude to the book. (Take my word for this. Trial lawyers often don’t know whether to believe their clients).

The story raises many issues, some legal, some practical. Was the killing justified? Was the client temporarily insane? Will Biegler get paid? The courtroom scenes ring with authenticity.  And unlike many of the popular legal thrillers of the era (Perry Mason, anyone?), justice is not always achieved.

In this sense, “Anatomy” ushered in the modern era of courtroom drama.  Stated another way, would there have been a Grisham or Turow without Voelker?  And, no, I am not forgetting Agatha Christie’s earlier “Witness for the Prosecution,” the short story that became a play, and then a classic movie, where justice was ill served.

anatomy cover

A personal note here. When I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,”  my editor told me the story reminded her of “Anatomy,” which I’d never read. So, I borrowed a copy from the library and concluded two things:

1. “Anatomy” is a great book.

2. It bore little resemblance to “Dead,” except both pay homage to the art of combative cross examination.

WRITING A FAN LETTER TO THE AUTHOR OF MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER

I liked “Anatomy” so much I wrote John Voelker a fan letter, saying I admired his work and asking whether he minded Otto Preminger changing key elements of the ending in the movie adaptation. (I’d also rented the film from Blockbuster. You remember Blockbuster’s VHS tapes, right?) I received a handwritten reply in green felt tip pen. First, Voelker apologized for his penmanship, saying that he was in his eighties and his eyes were failing. Then, he admitted something I have never heard an author say: “Yes, Preminger changed my ending. He made it a great deal better, don’t you think?”

How humble!

Preminger made several brilliant decisions. He hired Wendell Mayes, a screenwriter skillful at literary adaptations. He shot the film in the Upper Peninsula towns where the story was set, instead of Hollywood back lots. He hired Duke Ellington to both score the film and appear in it. To shoot the film in gorgeous black and white, he hired Sam Leavitt who had just won the Oscar for best cinematography for “The Defiant Ones.” And then there was the cast. James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and the non-actor Joseph Welch as the judge.

Befitting the novel, the film became a classic, as was its poster designed by Saul Bass.

Film poster for "Anatomy of a Murder," perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.
The classic poster for “Anatomy,” perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.

THE OSCARS CALL ON MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER…BUT HANG UP THE PHONE

The film was nominated for seven Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Stewart, playing the defense lawyer Voelker had been in real life. Stewart lost the award to Charlton Heston for his role in “Ben-Hur.” May I officially demand a recount? Same for best picture where “Ben-Hur” also topped “Anatomy.” George C. Scott and Arthur O’Connell were both nominated for supporting actor and probably split the “Anatomy” vote between them. Neither won. Lee Remick was not nominated for her stunning portrayal of the alleged rape victim. Academy voters should probably be tarred and feathered for overlooking Remick in favor of, among others, Doris Day for “Pillow Talk.”
lee remick in anatomy

So, please check out my favorite legal thriller of all time, “Anatomy of a Murder.”  Then get the classic film from Netflix or Amazon Instant Video and determine which ending you like better.

Next time. More favorite legal thrillers. Will it be “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Or something more contemporary. John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” or Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent?”

For now, Court stands adjourned!

Paul Levine