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
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 Forced to Defend 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 paperback, ebook, and audio from Amazon. Or, if you prefer, here are the links for Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

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