CTE: The Deadly Issue Behind “Bum Luck”

football

Mystery Writer and former skip tracer Terry Ambrose interviewed me about Bum Luck for his blog,, which I’m reprinting here. The subject of former NFL players dying of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been in the news since publication of the novel in which linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter suffers symptoms of brain damage.

By Terry Ambrose

The author of twenty novels, Paul Levine 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 also wrote twenty-one episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. Levine has just released the twelfth installment of the Jake Lassiter series, Bum Luck.

From Small Screen to Page

“Both writing for television and writing novels are rewarding and challenging in their own ways,” Levine said. “On television, it’s a shared responsibility. Director-showrunner-actors-network executives. The vision doesn’t belong to one person but is diffused. With novels, the writer is a one-person band.”

Jake Lassiter CTE
Does Jake Lassiter suffer from fatal CTE?

While Levine prefers the independence of writing novels, he enjoys the pace of TV writing. “There’s something about the immediacy of television—script to air in six weeks—that is appealing. Also, I believe television scribbling helped my book dialogue.”

Levine said, “Justice as an ideal is an underlying theme for me. The difficulty of achieving justice is the heart and soul of Bum Luck and the entire Jake Lassiter series. That’s reflected in Jake’s inner voice with lines like, ‘Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. When you fail to attain it, fight for the next best thing. Rough justice is better than none at all.’”

CTE: The Burning Issue Behind Bum Luck

Attorneys defend guilty clients all the time—and that knowledge is also behind the Lassiter series. “The dilemma of a lawyer defending a guilty client has always fascinated me,” Levine said. “In Bum Luck, Jake Lassiter seeks vengeance, or vigilante justice, against his own client.”

That’s right, Jake Lassiter, in the opening lines, announces his intention to kill his client. “Why would Lassiter, after all these years representing guilty clients, feel this way?” Levine said. “He might be very ill. Remember that he’s a former second-string Miami Dolphins linebacker who went to night law school and became a trial lawyer. In Bum Luck, Lassiter suffers symptoms indicating he may be in the early stages of always fatal Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The film “Concussion” brought CTE into the public consciousness.
“The idea for Bum Luck came from a close friend of mine, a former football player and international rugby player, who died of CTE. It affected me deeply. We know that hundreds of former NFL players have succumbed to traumatic brain injuries caused by repetitive concussions and thousands more will die in the future. It’s a tragic situation, compounded by the NFL’s stubborn resistance to admitting the truth for so many years.”

Levine said his primary goal is to entertain. “That starts with character. I aim for rich, complex, layered and often humorous characters who tell me the plot.”

Note: Just this week, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a harrowing study: 110 of 111 former NFL players who had shown symptoms prior to death were found after autopsies to be suffering from CTE. Recently, Sports Illustrated wrote about legendary linebacker Nick Buoniconti who, among others from the Miami Dolphins’ Super Bowl teams, is suffering from CTE. I previously blogged about the link between repeated blows to the head and CTE in a blog entitled: “Are Concussions Killing Jake Lassiter?”

Are Concussions Killing Jake Lassiter?

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

“For Don Russo (1946-2014) football player, rugby player, trial lawyer, friend.” — Dedication of “Bum Luck”

In September 1970, on the first day of my first year of law school, while waiting to have my photo I.D. taken, I struck up a conversation with another student, Don Russo. Both Don and I loved college football. As a sports writer, I had written about football. But Don had played. At the University of Miami, he’d been a small, speedy, fearless wide receiver. Going over the middle, he’d been knocked around like a pinball by linebackers 50 pounds heavier. In those days, concussions weren’t taken that seriously by coaches, trainers, or doctors. A player got his “bell rung.” If he still knew his name and could count to three, he could play, concussions be damned.

Don had short stints with the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, but after realizing there were faster, larger wide receivers at that level, he settled into the practice of law. Over the next quarter-century, Don became one of the top plaintiffs’ personal injury and toxic tort lawyers in Florida.

concussions felled Don
Trial Lawyer Don Russo, before being felled by brain disease likely caused by repeated concussions.
He also played rugby on an international level where it is simply not possible to compete without suffering head injuries, including concussions. Compete he did, fiercely and fearlessly.

Don was already showing early symptoms of the disease that would claim his life when the photo above was taken in 2011. The occasion was my appearance at Books & Books in Coral Gables for the launch of “Lassiter.”

concussions and Don
We didn’t know it at the time but concussions had already started to take their toll on Don Russo (left) by 2011.

That’s Don on the left and famed trial lawyer Stuart Grossman on the right. We had all been friends since law school 40 years earlier. Don also attended my first book signing in 1990 for “To Speak for the Dead,” as shown below. Yes, we were both much younger.

before concussions felled my friend
The author with a fit and hardy Don Russo, 1990.

The end came slowly and painfully for Don, his family and friends. Frontal lobe dementia and A.L.S. with symptoms consistent with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, caused by repeated concussions. He died three years ago last month. It was then I decided that Jake Lassiter would have his own encounter with brain injury and potential C.T.E. in my new novel “Bum Luck.” After all, he’d suffered a series of concussions going back to high school in the Florida Keys, through his playing days at Penn State, and on the aptly named suicide squads with the Miami Dolphins. How does Lassiter’s potential brain damage manifest itself. How about the first sentence of the novel?

Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.

By now, most readers are aware of the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who established the link between football head injuries and the fatal disease. You may have seen the movie “Concussion” in which Will Smith stars as Dr. Omalu and runs into the stone wall of deniers at the N.F.L.

concussions on film
The Hollywood film brought home the danger of repeated concussions.

The casualty list of former players with C.T.E. reads like an All-Pro team. In fact, on one restless night in “Bum Luck,” Lassiter has a nightmare inspired by his own fears of brain damage:

I dreamed of a football game played by dead men.

Not zombies. Nothing so weird.

The men were very much alive in the game. Young and strong and fast. In their prime, but even my somnolent brain knew they were dead now.

A fine mist covered the field, so it was difficult to make out the stadium, but it seemed to be the Orange Bowl, as long gone as the players. Earl Morrall, with his crew cut and square jaw, wearing a vintage Dolphins’ jersey, lofted a perfect pass to Frank Gifford, the golden boy, in a Giants’ uniform. Gifford juked past Dave Duerson, in Bears’ blue and orange, and sailed into the end zone, untouched. My sleeping mind mashed it all up, not caring about team rosters or eras. An all-star dream team all linked by brain damage caused by C.T.E.

In Lassiter’s fictional world, Dr. Melissa Gold, a neuropathologist, will try experimental treatments actually being used in the real world. As you may have read, in post-mortem tests of brain tissues, 90 of 94 former professional football players who had shown symptoms of dementia were revealed to have, in fact, suffered from C.T.E. resulting from repetitive concussions. Just last month, two living former NFL stars – Gale Sayers and Dwight Clark – were revealed to be suffering from symptoms consistent with C.T.E. (The gruesome fact is that a positive diagnosis can only be made post-mortem).

The more I researched, the more angry I became at the NFL for its shameful conduct in lying about the connection between football concussions and dementia. And when I get angry, so does Jake Lassiter. He always relishes a challenge. This time, I gave him one that might be too tough, even for the ex-linebacker with the hard bark and tender heart.

Let’s hope he makes it through the gathering fog of this dark night.

Legal Thrillers and Rough Justice

By Paul Levine

In legal thrillers, rough justice is better than none at all. To explain, let’s start with a quote from my favorite fictional lawyer.

“We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.” – Jake Lassiter

It’s been twenty-five years since Jake Lassiter uttered those words in TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, the first of my series of legal thrillers featuring the linebacker-turned-lawyer.

Now, Lassiter defends Steve Solomon, who’s accused of killing a South Beach nightclub owner. To win the case, Lassiter must find a missing bar-girl, battle Russian gangsters, and avoid being indicted himself. Complicating everything: he thinks his client is lying…and he’s falling for the client’s lover, Victoria Lord.

That’s the setup for my legal thriller, BUM RAP, which hit number one in the Kindle Store and lodged me briefly in the top spot of all authors on Amazon, just ahead of a promising fellow scribbler named Stephen King.

paul levine and stephen king
#1 and #2 Bestselling Authors on Amazon, June 6, 2015

UPDATE:Two more novels bring Lassiter together with Solomon & Lord. They’re BUM LUCK and BUM DEAL, and all three are available together as MIAMI LAW.

BUM RAP gives readers a chance to see how Lassiter has developed over the years. In the past, despite all his grumbling about ungrateful clients and lousy judges, he remained an optimist:

“If your cause is just, no case is impossible.” – LAST CHANCE LASSITER

Yet, he rejects the lofty language on the sign in the courtroom: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.”

“There ought to be a footnote: subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, concealed by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by lazy jurors.” – NIGHT VISION

Legal Thrillers: The Games Lawyers Play

He knows the games lawyers play, in and out of court:

“A good lawyer is part con man, part priest…promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation if you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

He turns down cases, even when he needs the money:

“I could have used the work, but I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just, and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three and you’re ahead of the game.” – FLESH & BONES

bum rap
BUM RAP is the first novel featuring Jake Lassiter together with squabbling Miami lawyers Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord.

Lassiter looks for loopholes in the Canons of Ethics:

“I won’t lie to a judge, bribe a cop, or sleep with a client’s wife…unless I knew her first.” – MORTAL SIN

That noted writer of legal thrillers, William Shakespeare, famously penned: “What’s past is prologue.” (I consider “The Merchant of Venice” one of the early legal thrillers. Talk about rough justice!)

Lassiter’s view is a little more earthy:

“Our past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats.” – BUM RAP

Against all odds, Lassiter still believes in justice, or at least, his version of it:

“Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold, or mass produced. Justice is intangible and invisible, but if you are to spend your life in its pursuit, it is best to believe that it exists. When you fail, fight for the next best thing. Rough justice is better than none at all.”LASSITER

Legal Thrillers: Rough Justice Isn’t Pretty

So just what is rough justice? Pretty much, the ends justify the means. A murderer beats the rap but takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. Or vigilante justice or personal retribution. Hey, I didn’t say rough justice was pretty.

This is the key to Lassiter’s character in all eleven of his legal thrillers. He believes in the overriding importance of the quest for justice. He will work outside the law to obtain a just result, or some close approximation. Twenty-five years after starting the quest, he’s still hard at work on the job.

BUM RAP is available in e-book, print, and audio, and all of the Lassiter legal thrillers can be found on Paul Levine’s AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE. Kindle Unlimited members read FREE. Just a few bucks for everyone else. Kindle Unlimited is now available in USA, UK, Canada, Mexico, India, Brazil, Germany, France, Spain, and Japan).

BUM RAP: BAR GIRLS AND MOBSTERS

hard-boiled PI

“The Big Thrill,” the monthly publication of International Thriller Writers, recently grilled author Paul Levine about BUM RAP, his new legal thriller. BUM RAP brings together Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, and Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord, squabbling Miami law partners. In a starred review, Booklist calls the novel “an irresistible Florida crime romp.”

Q: Paul, has it really been 25 years since Jake Lassiter burst onto the crime fiction scene with your first novel, “To Speak for the Dead?”

A: Is that a polite way of saying Jake’s old…or that I am?

Q: Only that the Lassiter novels are one of the longest running series in contemporary crime fiction. To what do you attribute their longevity?

A: Maybe because readers grow attached to characters and want to know what becomes of them after the caper ends. In Lassiter’s case, I like to think that his values are timeless.

“I have old habits, old friends and old values. I don’t tweet or blog or order pizza with arugula on top. I don’t have a life coach or an aroma therapist, and I sure as hell don’t do Pilates. I’m so un-hip that I could soon become trendy, like skinny ties and pants that stop at the ankles.” — Jake Lassiter

Q: In BUM RAP, Lassiter defends Steve Solomon, who’s accused of killing a Russian club owner on South Beach. Pretty quickly, Lassiter begins to doubt his client’s story.

A: He always assumes his clients were guilty. It saves time.

Q: Is it true that a real federal case in Miami was the inspiration for the novel?

A: True. Beautiful bar-girls were luring men to joints owned by Russian mobsters. The bar-girls would get the guys drunk and run up thousands of dollars in credit card charges for cheap Champagne, proving once again that men – as a group – have the I.Q. of mollusks.

bum rap
BUM RAP is the first novel featuring Jake Lassiter together with squabbling Miami lawyers Steve Solomon & Victoria Lord.

Q: While defending Solomon, Lassiter falls for Victoria Lord, his client’s law partner and lover. That’s a problem for a lawyer, right?

A: A blatant conflict of interest.

Q: Lassiter’s ethical standards seem somewhat flexible?

“That’s called extortion, Mr. Lassiter.”
“No, it’s not. It’s called lawyering.”

Q: For a trial lawyer, Lassiter seems to get in a lot of fistfights. While snooping around that bar-girl club in BUM RAP, he gets into it with the bouncer. Is this common practice for lawyers in Miami?

A: Buckle your chin strap. In Lassiter’s world, the law is a contact sport.

“I’m not one of those lonely warriors of the courtroom, righting wrongs wherever I find them, blah, blah, blah. I’m just an ex-jock wading through the muck of the so-called justice system. I don’t even mind getting dirty as long as the stains come out.”– Jake Lassiter

Q: How would you describe the theme of the Lassiter novels?

A: True justice is nearly impossible to achieve. But it’s damn sure worth pursuing. And rough justice is better than none at all.

Q: And by “rough justice” you mean…?

A: A murderer beats the rap but takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Or it can be vigilante justice or personal retribution.

“In court, mostly I lose. Or plead my guy guilty. It’s a dirty little secret, but that’s the deal with most criminal defense lawyers, even the big names who pontificate on CNN. If the clients knew our real winning percentage, they’d cop a quick plea or flee the jurisdiction.” – Jake Lassiter

Q: What’s next for Paul Levine?

A: Mixing the perfect gin and tonic. Making ice cubes from the tonic water helps.

(BUM RAP is available in trade paperback, e-book, and audio formats. All the “Lassiter” and “Solomon vs. Lord” novels are FREE for Kindle Unlimited members, a few bucks for everybody else. This interview originally appeared in THE BIG THRILL, a publication of the International Thriller Writers organization).

“BUM RAP” Sits Atop Kindle Store

lassiter in kindle store

By Paul Levine

Precisely 25 years after his first appearance in print, Jake Lassiter is back. The book is BUM RAP, and it’s off to a fast start, ranking Number One in the “legal thrillers,” “mysteries” and “thrillers” categories in the Amazon Kindle Store. Overall, with rankings changing hourly, it’s been skittering between number four and twenty out of 3.6 million titles.

Set in glitzy South Beach, BUM RAP brings Lassiter together with squabbling law partners (and lovers) Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. Lassiter last appeared in “State vs. Lassiter,” a Shamus Award nominee. Solomon and Lord were last seen bickering and bantering in “Habeas Porpoise,” the fourth novel of their Edgar-nominated series.

In BUM RAP, Lassiter defends Solomon on a murder charge…while falling for Victoria. It’s an emotional powder keg that could destroy the defense and Lassiter, too.

Kindle Store List
A Kindle Store Bestseller

Bar-Girls, Betrayal and Murder

It all begins on South Beach when Solomon accompanies a new client – stunning Bar-Girl Nadia Delova – to Club Anastasia, where her job is to get men drunk and run up colossal charges on their credit cards. Solomon and Nadia confront club owner Nicolai Gorev, demanding Nadia’s back pay. They argue; Gorev is shot dead; Nadia is gone; and the murder weapon is in Solomon’s hand.

The key to the case: find the missing Nadia Delova. But Lassiter isn’t the only one looking for her. There’s the federal government. And the Russian Mafia. And a mysterious Miami gangster named Benny the Jeweler.

Just what is really going on at Club Anastasia? And why do all the Bar-Girls take the same flight from Moscow to the U.S.? And who really killed Nicolai Gorev? It all comes together in an explosive courtroom finale that could send Solomon to prison for life and end Lassiter’s career.

The Kindle Store Bestseller Lists

I’m writing this nine hours after BUM RAP went on general sale in the Amazon Kindle Store. And yes, it’s available as a paperback and audio, in addition to the e-book. My son, Mike Levine, a deep-voiced sportscaster, did a terrific job narrating the book for Brilliance Audio. And the idea for the book? That came from my wife, Marcia Silvers, a criminal appellate lawyer recently named one of the top 50 female attorneys in Florida by Super Lawyers magazine.

What’s the secret behind BUM RAP’s fast start? Certainly, there is the continuing appeal of Jake Lassiter. He’s “Travis McGee with trial experience,” as The Washington Post called him. I also want to thank Thomas & Mercer for its stunning pre-publication promotion that pushed both book and author into Number One status on the world’s largest bookselling platform.

Kindle Store Levine & King
Top Two Kindle Store Bestselling Authors

BUM RAP’s success also fueled sales of both the Lassiter and Solomon & Lord backlists. In June, seven of those books ranked in the top twelve bestselling “legal thrillers” in the Kindle Store. And how crazy is this? With BUM RAP holding down the first position, “To Speak for the Dead,” the first Lassiter thriller (1990) and “Night Vision” (1991) were second and third.

top Kindle Store legal thrillers
Kindle Store Top Legal Thrillers

To answer an often-asked question: No, you don’t have to read the earlier books first. Each stands on its own. If you want, you can start with BUM RAP and work backward.

So, whether you’re a longtime reader or new to the series, I hope you give BUM RAP a try and drop me a note if you do.

Paul Levine