Four Novels That Led Me To Jake Lassiter

bum deal feature image

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).

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.

Carl Hiaasen Tricked Me Into a New Career

Carl Hiaasen novel

By Paul Levine

I blame Carl Hiaasen.

Let me explain.

It was 1986. I was a partner in the Miami office of a mammoth law firm with offices from Philadelphia to Tokyo. I specialized in “complex civil litigation.” Upside: Financial security. Downside: Boring work.

Even worse than the daily tedium, I’d abandoned my true self. Exhibit A: In college during Vietnam, I protested against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm. Now, the law firm put me in charge of all asbestos cases. Defending the manufacturer, a company with a nasty habit of hiding evidence.

I was a wreck, filled with self-loathing. Then I read Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season.” In his first solo novel, Hiaasen told a hilarious story with powerful underlying themes about greed, the environment, and the destruction of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen and Tourist Season
“Tourist Season” by Carl Hiaasen Changed My Life

I knew Hiaasen’s work from his Miami Herald column where he roasted public officials for their idiotic behavior. And now this! A satiric, darkly comedic novel in which a deranged newspaper columnist kills tourists in bizarre ways in order to stem runaway population growth and the and condo-ization of Florida. (Actually, I doubt that Hiaasen considered the columnist deranged. Heroic, maybe.)

I loved “Tourist Season” and decided I wanted to write novels. What gave me the confidence to even try?

Because Carl Hiaasen made it look so damn easy!

The pages flowed as naturally as a mountain stream over polished rocks. You never saw the puppeteer’s wires maneuvering the characters. You never heard the writer’s keyboard clacking behind the dialogue. I was reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line: “Never let them catch you acting.” Carl Hiaasen never let you catch him writing.

So, I said, “I can do that.” After all, I was an expert at complex litigation. How hard could it be to tell a simple story? Obviously, I knew nothing of three-act structure, point-of-view, plotting, plot twists, and dialogue. I’d never taken a writing course or de-constructed a novel to see how the magic came to be.

Thankfully, I had read a bit.

Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald

Raymond Chandler knocked me sideways with his hard-boiled wordplay. “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue taught me about sturdy protagonists: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

And John D. MacDonald showed that a protagonist can be flawed: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”

Soon, I discovered that Hiaasen had tricked me. It wasn’t easy!

Still, in 1988, two years after reading “Tourist Season,” I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced Jake Lassiter, a linebacker-turned-lawyer with a hard bark and a tender heart. Lassiter owes a debt to Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald…and Hiaasen.

I Quit the Law; Carl Hiaasen is to Blame!

I resigned my law firm partnership. No more long lunches of rare tenderloin and stone crabs at the Banker’s Club. I was a full-time writer. Except for a detour to Hollywood to write for CBS, I’ve made my life as a novelist ever since.

Carl Hiaasen 2015
Paul Levine and Carl Hiaasen, 2015

I’ve lived through the giddy days of sizable hardcover runs and dandy foreign deals, then the consolidation and shrinkage of mainstream publishing. I’ve written books on spec that didn’t sell and suffered the sleepless nights that accompany fear of failure. Then came electronic publishing and the miraculous resurrection of my long out-of-print work, including “To Speak for the Dead.” This month marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s hardcover publication. Amazingly, “…Dead” has been one of the top five bestselling legal thrillers all summer, at one point hitting number two in the Amazon Kindle Store, behind only my latest, “Bum Rap.”

There Should Be a Pulitzer Prize for Titles

I still read Carl Hiaasen. Even his titles make me smile. “Bad Monkey.” “Sick Puppy.” “Strip Tease.” “Skinny Dip.”

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
“Skinny Dip” by Carl Hiaasen

I continue to hone my craft. I take my time, paring down my chapters, my paragraphs, my sentences, producing a book every two years. That’s right, Carl Hiaasen. I’m still slogging away, working hard to make it look easy. And I don’t miss those Banker’s Club lunches. But just the same, you tricked me…into a career I love.

Paul Levine

“Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

(This originally appeared in “The Third Degree,” a publication of the Mystery Writers of America).