Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?

Atticus Finch

By Paul Levine

Hotshot New York City lawyers frequently defend white-collar criminals, and once in a while, the tables are turned.

So it was this week when the bigwigs of a mammoth deep-carpet law firm were indicted for “cooking the books.” No, that’s not the precise charge; it’s what the lawyers themselves called it in emails!

No Atticus Finch here
Silk-suited defendants march into court this week.

Officially, the leaders of now-bankrupt Dewey & LeBouef, were charged with grand larceny, securities fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records. In a nutshell, they lied to lenders and auditors in order to obtain a stream of loans to pay themselves and their partners millions while the firm was hemorrhaging money.

“Fraud is not an acceptable accounting practice,” said New York D.A. Cyrus Vance, in what might be called an understatement.

The SEC weighed in, too. “So pervasive was the culture of financial chicanery at Dewey’s top levels that its highest ranking officials — including the defendants — had no qualms about referring among themselves in various e-mails to ‘fake income,’ ‘accounting tricks,’ ‘cooking the books,’ and deceiving what they described as a ‘clueless auditor.'”

Which brings us to the question:

Where Have You Gone Atticus Finch?

I think we yearn for the lawyer-gladiator who battles for justice against overwhelming odds. Witness Atticus Finch, standing tall before a bigoted jury and pleading for justice for a black man wrongfully accused of rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Atticus Finch in court
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands tall, seeking justice.

Of course, that was fiction. Harper Lee’s iconic novel was also published 54 years ago. In the intervening time, the image of lawyers in popular culture has changed, and some lawyers are unhappy about it.

When “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of my series of legal thrillers, was published in 1990, a lawyer friend chided me: “You tarnish the profession with your so-called hero.”

Well, true, Jake Lassiter is no Atticus Finch.

“They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”-Jake Lassiter

Lassiter is an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” who unravels a murder mystery in the novel. As a Miami Dolphins linebacker, he was a step too slow, and he’s not that swift as a trial lawyer either. On cross-examination, he asks an expert witness one question too many and is buried in an avalanche of rhetoric. He robs a grave to get evidence, then lands in jail after taunting a witness into a fistfight.

No Atticus Finch here
The first of the Jake Lassiter series.

In “Mortal Sin,” Lassiter has an affair with a client’s wife and in “Flesh & Bones,” he’s sleeping with his client, a young model accused of killing her father. I haven’t checked the Ethical Rules in a while, but I suspect that both affairs are frowned upon by the elders of the Bar. In the current book, “State vs. Lassiter” our hero isn’t sleeping around; he’s charged with murder.

But I hardly invented this shift in focus from earnest, virtuous lawyers like Perry Mason and Atticus Finch to the modern shyster. In Scott Turow’s sizzling “Presumed Innocent,” prosecutor Rusty Sabich is obsessed with his mistress, not the law, while his lawyer Sandy Stern uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge instead of evidence to win his case. The same year “Presumed Innocent” was published (1987), Tom Wolfe entertained us with “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in which a D.A. builds his career with press conferences instead of jury trials. Four years later, readers had no trouble buying the premise that a successful law firm was a front for the mob in John Grisham’s spectacularly successful “The Firm.”

No Atticus Finch here either
You won’t find Atticus Finch in this corrupt firm.

Fiction mirrors reality, so these modern portrayals are hardly surprising. The irony is that many lawyers today picture themselves as Gregory Pecks fighting heroic courtroom battles, even as they churn out endless paperwork in mind-numbing construction litigation or put jurors to sleep with year-long antitrust trials involving the dogfood industry. But dare to criticize the profession, and you’ll incur their lawyerly wrath, wimpy as it may be. (I practiced law for 17 years in both trial and appellate courts, so I feel entitled to take some liberties with my former brethren).

In a sense, it’s not these more modern lawyers who break the norm. It’s Atticus Finch who is the outlier. You want proof? Incompetent lawyers and sleazy judges are hardly new to readers. Works as diverse as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and John Barth’s “The Floating Opera” portray justice perverted. In the 1982 film, “The Verdict,” (script by David Mamet, adapted from Barry Reed’s book), Paul Newman plays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals.

Newman becomes Atticus Finch
From alcoholic bumbler to…well, almost a modern day Atticus Finch.

He is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, the minions of an evil establishment. When Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case for a comatose young woman, he can no more accept the money than Gary Cooper can leave town before High Noon:

“This girl’s screaming out for someone to stand up. And it’s me, Mick. It’s me. And I can win it. I can win this case.”

You Can’t Find Atticus Finch in the Bronx

There aren’t many stand-up guys in the “vast and bilious gloom” of the Bronx County Courthouse, the setting for “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Wolfe paints a portrait of Sherman McCoy, a vain but innocent man who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The Bronx courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on prisoners who sass him. Then there’s prosecutor Abe Weiss, who schedules McCoy’s arrest on the best news day of the week, hoping to garner headlines after reporters stopped covering his drug indictments as too routine.

In modern courtroom fiction, cynicism is the order of the day. In “To Speak for the Dead,” retired medical examiner Doc Charlie Riggs asks Jake Lassiter to rob a grave to find evidence At first, Lassiter refuses:

“I try not to break more than two or three of the canons each week.”

Charlie Riggs downed his drink in one gulp, gave me his teacher-to-student look, and said, “Just a little private investigation to answer some questions, settle your conscience. Maybe your young lady friend will appreciate you searching for the truth, kind of set you apart from most members of your profession.”

He knew how to push all the right buttons. “C’mon, Jake. To hell with your canons.”
“Come to think of it, I said, “they’re not mine.”

Mystery Books Hard-Boiled: From Spade to Lassiter

By Paul Levine

This question recently appeared on Facebook: “Who’s your favorite character in hard-boiled fiction?”

The answers were smart and reflected knowledge of both classic and post-modern noir crime fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were among the answers. So, too, of course was Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. How could he not be an icon of hard-boiled mystery books with lines like this from “The Maltese Falcon?”

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.”

Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Sam Spade
In the field of mystery books, a hero doesn’t get  any more hard-boiled than Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

More contemporary tough guys like Dave Robicheaux from James Lee Burke’s mystery novels, Matt Scudder from Lawrence Block and Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley were also on the list. So, too, were Spenser and Travis McGee. I think those two iconic tough guys display a tad too much sentimentality to be considered characters of old-school hard-boiled mystery books, but no one can deny that Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald created protagonists who will live forever. The occasional female character also cropped up. Lisbeth Salander, from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, made an appearance, as did Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.  Hard-boiled babes, as it were.

Wikipedia defines hard-boiled fiction as:

“[A] literary genre sharing the setting with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehension, horror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions.”

Can Heroes of Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Have Tender Hearts?

One answer on Facebook blindsided me. That was Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer in 10 of my mystery books, including the recently released “State vs. Lassiter.”

Funny thing is, just as with Spenser and Travis McGee, Jake never seemed that hard-boiled to me. Oh, there’s the occasional tough-guy line: “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

Then he’s occasionally getting punched out, digging up graves, and flirting with disbarment.

But is that enough? I always thought he had a hard bark but a tender heart. To determine whether Jake is hard-boiled or merely cynical, I recently had a not-too-friendly conversation with him:

Paul: You look like you’re still in shape to play for the Miami Dolphins. How do you do it?

Jake: Being fictional helps. By the way, you look like pelican crap.

Paul: You’re just peeved because I got you indicted for murder in the new book.

Jake: I don’t get “peeved.” I get pissed, and when I do, someone gets decked.

Paul: Let me ask you a tough question.

Jake: Take your best shot, scribbler.

Paul: You’ve been called many things. “Shyster.” “Mouthpiece.” “Shark.” But murderer?

Jake: I’m not bad. You just write me that way.

Paul: Okay, in “State vs. Lassiter,” your client’s money goes missing…

Jake: I never stole from a client, bribed a judge, or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Paul: How’s that?

Jake: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.

Hard-boiled mystery books Jake Lassiter
Mystery Books: Is “State vs. Lassiter”  hard-boiled crime fiction or a legal thriller or both?

Paul: Okay, at the start of the book, you’re having an affair with a beautiful woman who also happens to be your banker.

Jake: So sue me. Women think I look like a young Harrison Ford.

Paul: One keystroke, I’ll turn you into an old Henry Ford. You and your lady are having a fancy dinner on Miami Beach. She threatens to turn you in for skimming client funds, and next thing we know, she’s dead…in your hotel suite.

Jake: Is there a question in there, counselor?

Paul: What happened?

Jake: I take the Fifth. Ever heard of it?

Paul: You go on trial for murder.

Jake: Hold your horses. No spoilers!

Paul: “Hold your horses?” What are you, an extra in “Gunsmoke?”

Jake: Sorry if I’m not hip enough for you, scribbler. You won’t find my mug on Facebook. I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t do Pilates.

Paul: So you’re not trendy. You’re not a Yuppie.

Jake: I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a Chardonnay and paté world.

Paul: You’re a throwback, then?

Jake: If that’s what you call someone with old friends, old habits, and old values.

Paul: Bring us up to date. You first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990.

Jake: Yeah, and Hollywood made a TV movie with Gerald McRaney. My ass is better looking than him.

Paul: Who should play you in a movie?

Jake: Easy. The Duke.

Paul: John Wayne? You’re kidding.

Jake: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.” Sort of sums it up, don’t it?

Paul: “State vs. Lassiter” is the tenth in a series of mystery books. But you’re facing life in prison. Is this the end?

Jake: Not entirely up to me, is it scribbler?

Paul: Last question. Do you consider yourself hard-boiled?

Jake: (Reaches across the table and pops Paul with a left jab. Ka-pow!). What do you think?

Paul: Ouch! You’ll pay for this, Jake.  Wait till the next book.
#
“State vs. Lassiter” is available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook from Amazon Books.