Paul Levine Plays the Cheater’s Game — Mystery Scene

I recently wrote a short piece – “College Scandal: Who’s Really on Trial?” – for Mystery Scene, explaining the backstory behind my new novel, “Cheater’s Game,” recently named “one of the best legal thrillers of 2020” by Best Thrillers. Though it features Jake Lassiter, the novel is a stand-alone. The introduction to the Mystery Scene article is by Oline H. Cogdill, dean of the nation’s crime fiction reviewers and winner of the Raven Award presented by Mystery Writers of America.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine is among the authors who can be credited with launching the current wave of Florida mysteries, beginning with “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter.

Hard to believe that “To Speak for the Dead” celebrates its 30th anniversary during 2020.

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced the linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels.

Seems like yesterday I reviewed that novel, captivated by how well Levine captured the nuances of Florida. And this was long before the public discovered that unique and not to bright species called Florida Man (and Woman).

Levine, the author of 22 novels, won the John D. MacDonald Fiction Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes.

A former trial lawyer, he wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed “Solomon vs. Lord” legal capers. He divides his time between Santa Barbara and Miami.

Levine’s latest book is “Cheater’s Game,” which digs deep into the college admissions scandal.

Cheater's Game
Jake Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal in “Cheater’s Game” (2020)

In “Cheater’s Game,” Lassiter returns to the Miami courtroom when his nephew Kip needs his help. Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help wealthy kids gain admission to elite universities. The mastermind of the fraud, Ringle cops a plea to save his own hide and shifts the blame to Kip who’s charged with multiple federal crimes.

In this essay for Mystery Scene, Levine takes a look at the college scandal and its influence on his novel.

COLLEGE SCANDAL: WHO’S REALLY ON TRIAL?
By Paul Levine

“Have those parents lost their minds?”

That was my first thought when a few dozen well-educated, well-respected, well-off parents were handcuffed, perp-walked and booked for their roles in the college admissions scandal. Then this question. How many other privileged families might be bribing their kids into elite universities with fabricated resumes and rigged test scores?

When the news broke, how many cinnamon lattes were spilled by nervous parents in Beverly Hills, Napa, and Miami?

Call me naive, but I was astonished that parents could be so morally bankrupt as to willingly – and sometimes gleefully, if you listen to wiretaps—cheat, bribe, and lie their children into the University of Southern California rather than, say, Southern Methodist University.
What messages were they sending? That money and connections are the keys to success? That faking it is making it and cheaters win?

Public outrage has been fast and furious with a hefty dose of schadenfreude that rich folks are getting their comeuppance. The news media have covered the cases breathlessly, doubtless because celebrities are involved. A non-fiction book with a weighty title, “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” by two Wall Street Journal reporters, is due out in July.

A limited series on television is in the works, though I doubt that Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who have both pleaded guilty, will play themselves.

lori
Actress Lori Loughlin proclaimed her innocence for a year before pleading guilty.

My just-published fictional take on the scandal, “Cheater’s Game,” brings aging lawyer Jake Lassiter into the fray.

But now I wonder…were any crimes committed? Could the parents’ conduct—clearly immoral and unethical—not necessarily be illegal?

Sure, many parents have already pleaded guilty to fraud. Facing a federal judge in Boston, they expressed remorse in scripted speeches that might be summarized this way: I just loved my child so much, I lost my moral compass. And yes, we all scoffed. The parents’ regretted getting caught, that’s all.

Now, with several cases poised for trial later this year, I wonder if there are shades of gray where I initially saw only black and white. Are the universities themselves at least partly to blame? Did their admissions practices invite this type of fraud?

Defense lawyers claim that both UCLA and the University of Southern California basically sell admissions slots to children of wealthy donors. One case involves Miami investor Robert Zangrillo, charged with using bribery and fraud to ease his daughter’s admission into USC. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the “defense hinges on the theory that USC routinely shunts the children of donors and prospective donors into a VIP pool of applicants.”

Meanwhile, across town, lawyers for the former UCLA soccer coach accused of taking $200,000 in bribes, have fired this broadside: “UCLA’s own internal documents reveal that, for many years, its Athletic Department has facilitated the admission of unqualified applicants through the student-athlete admissions process in exchange for huge ‘donations’ by the students’ wealthy parents.”

Why put the word “donations” in quotation marks?

Simple. The lawyers claim those aren’t donations at all. They’re the ticket prices for admitting unqualified students to UCLA.

How does any of this affect the fate of the parents who paid bribes and the coaches who accepted them? For any of the defendants to be guilty of fraud, there has to be a victim.

The universities cannot be considered victims, the defense lawyers claim, because they routinely sell admissions slots to donors. The universities actually received some of the bribe money paid by the parents.

Bo
My dog, Bojangles, gets a laugh from Lassiter’s cross-examination.

LASSITER’S TAKE

It’s a fascinating argument. In fact, it’s the one defense lawyer Jake Lassiter makes in “Cheater’s Game.”

Here he is, cross-examining a university admissions director:

“This so-called fraud didn’t cost the university any money, correct?”

“Correct.”

“Isn’t it true the university actually made money? Millions of dollars funneled to the athletic department.”

“We received money, that’s true.”

“So there’s no real difference in gaining admission through bribery and the university selling admissions slots to the children of high-rolling donors, is there?”

“We don’t sell slots.”

“Then, what’s the difference between bribing the university directly or bribing a coach?”

“Objection! Irrelevant.” The prosecutor was on her feet, ready for battle. “The admissions system isn’t on trial here.”

“Sure it is,” Lassiter said. “That’s exactly what’s on trial.”

MY SUGGESTION FOR REFORM

With jury trials expected in coming months, we’ll know soon enough what’s on trial.

Whether the defendants are convicted or acquitted, the universities’ reputations will surely suffer.

Perhaps it is time to erect a wall between applicants and donors, between admissions departments and the euphemistically named “development” offices. Let the applicants stand on their own and the donors contribute without a quid pro quo.

In short, let’s make higher education a meritocracy.

###

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.