Hard-Boiled Dialogue: From Philip Marlowe to Jake Lassiter

hard-boiled PI

Hard-boiled dialogue…the literary equivalent of a quick punch to the gut.

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Those hard-boiled lines come from the mind of tough-guy P.I. Philip Marlowe, which is to say from author Raymond Chandler. You’ll find the first one in Farewell My Lovely and the second in The Big Sleep, classics of the noir genre.

hard-boiled Bogey
Humphrey Bogart was plenty hard-boiled as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”

Many consider Chandler to be one of the founders of “hard-boiled crime fiction” featuring the weathered, world-weary and cynical private eye. However…

Hard-Boiled Can Be Humorous, Too

Hard-boiled dialogue is certainly an element of tough-guy crime fiction. But a line can be hard-boiled and humorous, too. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the villains are Nazi spies, so it’s a serious drama…but with humorous interludes. Here’s an exchange between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman:

“Don’t you need a coat?” Grant asks.

“You’ll do,” Bergman replies.

hard-boiled Notorious
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exchange hard-boiled, sometimes humorous lines in “Notorious.”

Hard-Boiled? Tough Bark with a Tender Heart

All this came to mind when a reader told me that a baker’s dozen of hard-boiled quotes from my Jake Lassiter and Solomon vs. Lord books are posted on Goodreads, one of the most entertaining and informative readers’ websites.

Often Lassiter is equal parts sly and hard-boiled. The ex-second-string NFL linebacker turned renegade lawyer has a tough bark but a tender heart. Still, he shares some rueful cynicism with earlier heroes of crime fiction, and he does dispense hard-bitten lines.

“I’m a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world. I’m as health conscious as the next guy, as long as the next guy is sitting on a bar stool.” – FALSE DAWN

hard-boiled false dawn
Jake Lassiter cracks wise and hard-boiled in “False Dawn”

“I stood there, 230 pounds of ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, leaning against the faded walnut rail of the witness stand, home to a million sweaty palms.” – TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD

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

Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter
Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter finds himself behind bars in “State vs. Lassiter.”

Old Heraclitus Had it Right: “Character is Destiny”

Heraclitus wrote that “character is destiny,” which is a pretty nifty line. If he hadn’t died 2,500 years ago, he could probably get a job writing for NCIS. I’d add this corollary to Herac’s three words of wisdom: “Dialogue reveals character.” I’ve long believed that it’s better to reveal your protagonist’s character traits through his or her own voice, rather than clunky narration. I call these unspoken thoughts “internal dialogue.” Wikipedia uses the phrase “self-talk.”

From the quotes above, you might already have a feel for Jake Lassiter, even if you’ve never read any of the ten books in the series. He’s the guy they call “Last Chance Lassiter,” because he takes on impossible cases no other lawyer will touch. On the other hand, sometimes he turns down a case:

“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 AND BONES

While defending a murder trial:

“At the prosecution table, Flagler gave me his Ivy League snicker. If I wanted, I could dangle him out the courtroom window by his ankles. But then, I was picking up penalties for late hits while he was singing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. I’m proud of my night school diploma. Top half of the bottom third of my class.” – LASSITER

And finally from Lassiter, on the practice of law:

“We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”FOOL ME TWICE

But let’s close with a Raymond Chandler classic from the short story Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

Yikes!

Paul Levine

You can watch Paul’s video interviews (including one about dialogue), learn about bargain books, and make purchases on the Paul Levine Amazon Author Page.

Fargo TV Series a Hit: “You Betcha!”

Fargo TV Series

By Paul Levine

The ten-episode Fargo TV Series, based loosely on the Coen Brothers darkly comedic feature film, went out with a bang — several bangs — and fans can finally let out a deep breath.

HUGE SPOILER ALERT: Hit man Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is dead.

PAT MYSELF ON THE BACK ALERT:  Several episodes ago, I told my wife Marcia that meek cop-turned-mailman Gus Grimly, not protagonist Deputy Molly Solverson, would kill Malvo. Dramatically, it  had to happen that way. More on why below.

Meanwhile, a lawyer friend asked last night. “Okay, what’s it all mean?”

Well, where to begin? The Fargo TV series was many things. On the surface it’s a serial killer story with the usual question: Will justice be done? But that’s the issue in virtually every cop show in the history of television.

Fargo TV Series: Malvo
Fargo TV Series: Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) was one icy killer.

Just as “True Detective” (another many-layered serial killer story) was deeply rooted in the psychological traumas of the two main characters, much was going on beneath the surface in the Fargo TV series:

* It’s a father-daughter story. Two stories, really. Lou (Keith Carradine), the retired and wounded cop, fears for his daughter Molly, (Allison Tolman), the deputy-who-should-be-chief. And widower Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) fears that if he’s killed, his daughter will be an orphan.

* It’s a story of two sociopaths, though one doesn’t know it in the beginning.

* It’s a story of two cowards, but one really isn’t.

* It’s a story of redemption for the coward who was really a hero.

* But most of all, it’s a story about a very smart female cop whose talents are ignored by her donut-chomping male superiors until the very end, where she prevails, just as the former chief had foreshadowed.

Fargo TV Series, Molly
Deputy Molly Solverson is frustrated by the incompetence of the chief in the Fargo TV Series

Fargo TV Series: In the Beginning, a Shocker!

Let’s go back to the beginning. All is well with the world in little Bemidji, MN. Vern, the nice guy police chief, recognizes Molly’s superior intelligence and dedication and expresses the hope that she’ll be the next chief. Then, BOOM! Hit man Malvo kills Vern in a scene of shocking violence.

That shooting came hard-on-the-heels of Malvo killing the town bully in a whorehouse, and meek insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (the incomparable Martin Freeman) splattering his wife’s brains with hammer.  A true coward, Lester has learned from Malvo that having no conscience can get things done. You can kill your nagging wife, frame your irritating brother, lie to the widow of the town bully and have sex with her, then finally set up your second wife to take a bullet intended for you. All with hardly a second thought. It was Malvo who brought out Lester’s sociopathic tendencies, though I suppose there was always an underlying narcissism.

Fargo TV Series: Gus Grimley’s “Desires” and “Needs”

Midway through the season, we discover we have a co-protagonist. It’s widower-cop Gus Grimly, who takes a shine to Molly, marries her, and gets her pregnant. But there’s a “ghost” looming over him, to use the screenwriting term. Early on, he freezes up and lets the murderous Malvo go, after stopping him for speeding. But if you recall, it was Gus’s fear of leaving his daughter an orphan — not cowardice — that prompted Gus’s action…or inaction. Still, that left Gus despondent, and after a second screw-up, accidentally shooting Molly in a white-out blizzard, he’s canned from the force. Now he can pursue his real dream…becoming a mailman. No, really.

Fargo TV series
Killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and reluctant deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) in the Fargo TV series.

Gus might not be cut out to be a cop, but neither is he a coward. In the finale, he sneaks into Malvo’s hidden cottage to await his return. Logically, Gus should have called the cops, right? Wrong! As wife Marcia pointed out while we were watching the show, Gus knew that his wife, the pregnant Deputy Molly, would rush to the scene, directly into harm’s way.  Gus was protecting her with his seemingly illogical action.

Another reason, too. Let’s go back to film school (a place I’ve never been). In screenwriting, they talk about a character’s “desires” versus a character’s “needs.” On the surface, Gus desires a peaceful life. A family. A pleasant drive through the countryside delivering the mail. But his “need” is interior, perhaps even unconscious. He needs to prove to himself that he is not a coward. He needs to protect his wife and daughter. (In this regard, he is just like Molly’s father Lou, who sits on the porch all night with a shotgun to protect Gus’s daughter from harm). In short, Gus needs redemption. That’s why it was clear to me, early on, that Gus will kill Malvo. And boy, was it satisfying! Seldom is a shooting in cold blood so damn well earned.

Fargo TV series lester
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) takes his lumps en route to becoming a killer on the Fargo TV series

Hey, speaking about redemption, let’s say a word about the knucklehead police chief Bill (Bob Odenkirk), who, as another observer pointed out, is “not the sharpest blade in the woodchipper.” He gains redemption by recognizing his weaknesses and Molly’s strengths and retiring so she can become chief. In an unusually introspective moment, he admits to not being up to the job in an era of cruelty and inhumanity:

“I used to have positive opinions about people. Used to think the best. Now looking over my shoulder — an unquiet mind — that’s what the wife calls it. The job has got me staring into the fireplace, drinking. I never wanted to be the type thinking about the nature of things. All I ever wanted was a stack of pancakes and a V-8.”

I think that was intended to pay homage to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” where Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones  bemoans the passing of simpler times. Here’s a truncated version of that monologue:

“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here…Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe…The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”

Sharp observers might remember a couple weeks back, Malvo told the story about the bear who chewed his leg off to get out of a trap, then died in a stream, but on his own terms. Then Malvo gets his leg broken in Lester’s bear trap…leading to his own death at Gus’s hands. No biggie. Just the screenwriter showing off a bit.

Finally, there is the wonderful ending of the Fargo TV series. On a comfy sofa, preganant Molly, Gus and Gus’s daughter Greta are watching television. Gus is a tad embarrassed that he’s getting a citation for bravery for taking down Malvo. Says he thinks Molly should get it. “Nope,” she says, “that’s your deal. I get to be the chief.”

(Paul Levine is the author of the “Jake Lassiter” and the “Solomon vs. Lord” series of legal thrillers).

“Lassiter” — Number One Mystery Reviewer Has Her Say

Lassiter cover

By Paul Levine

Usually, my blogs are on diverse subjects. They range from a comparison of two movie stars’ military records: “Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and My Dad” to my endless search for a lawyer-hero: “Atticus Finch: Where Are You Now?”

But today I’m turning the blog over to  Oline Cogdill, widely regarded as the top crime fiction reviewer in the country. (She’s won the Raven Award, presented by the Mystery Writers of America, to prove it).

Review of “Lassiter”

I’m simply re-printing Oline’s 2011 review of “Lassiter,” which marked the comeback for the linebacker-turned-lawyer, who hadn’t been seen since 1997’s “Flesh & Bones.” I might add that I’m doing this without asking Oline’s permission or that of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel or The Miami Herald, or the written consent of the National Football League. So sue me.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine brings a certain symmetry to “Lassiter,” which marks the return of Jake Lassiter, a Miami Dolphins linebacker turned hard-nosed lawyer.

Levine’s series launched in 1990 with “To Speak for the Dead,” named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by the Los Angeles Times. The Lassiter series came at the start of the wave of Florida mysteries that shows no sign of slowing down and earned Levine the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

Lassiter number one
“To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Lassiter novels

Now Jake is back after a 14-year absence in the aptly named “Lassiter,” and it’s as if this wise-cracking, renegade lawyer never left. “Lassiter” works as a gripping legal thriller, a story of self-discovery, and a look at corruption set against an insider’s evocative view of South Florida.

And it seems fitting that Levine reintroduces his attorney by having him look into an incident that occurred early in his career.

Like many people, Jake has regrets, especially about his wilder days. One regret is that he didn’t do more to help Kristin Larkin, a teenage runaway.

“Back then, I had yet to develop the empathy for others that marks the passage into manhood,” he says. Today, Jake is a different man and he’s caught off guard when Amy Larkin shows up, accusing him of being involved in her sister’s disappearance 18 years earlier.

Amy, who was only 11 when her sister ran away, had always believed her sister dead until her father recently told her on his deathbed that he didn’t know what happened to Kristin. The obsessive Amy targets Jake since he is the only link she has to her sister.

Lassiter cover
Jake Lassiter is both suspect and investigator in the disappearance of a young woman

Jake’s investigation leads him to Charlie Ziegler, a former pornographer turned philanthropist; Alex Castiel, a Cuban-American prosecutor who is one of Jake’s best friends; and Miami’s history of organized crime.

Lassiter Serious, Witty, and Sardonic

Levine’s energetic storytelling works well in “Lassiter” as the author manages to make his novel serious, witty and sardonic — sometimes even in the same sentence. Levine steeps his plot in realism, making Jake’s look into an 18-year-old trail seem plausible.

Jake knows who he is now as well as who he once was — “the egotistical jock with all the trappings of stunted male adolescence.” He knows that rich and famous clients aren’t about to come through his door. Still, he’s a good lawyer and trying to be a better parent to his young nephew he’s raising.

Levine demonstrates that he knows Miami by following Jake’s travels on the myriad causeways, along South Beach and through Coconut Grove. In the story as in real life, no trip to Miami is complete without a visit to Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.

Although Levine put his attorney on hiatus in 1997, the author has been quite busy, writing the humorous Solomon vs. Lord legal series set in Miami and working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, including writing 20 episodes of the TV series JAG.

“Lassiter” makes us remember how much we enjoyed Jake’s company. It’s good to have him back.
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And to that, I say, thank you and return to work on my next book!

Paul Levine

Courtroom Drama: Trials & Errors

courtroom drama

By Paul Levine

In 17 years as a trial lawyer, I saw a lot of courtroom drama. But I never witnessed a judge shouting “Order in the court!” Still, that hasn’t stopped me from writing scenes in which the judge angrily silences an unruly mob, his gavel echoing like a rifle shot.

I’ve taken liberties, but mostly small ones. Nothing irritates me more than a courtroom scene that’s dead wrong. Recently, I was skimming a promising debut novel that involves a murder trial.

“Does the prosecution intend to call the defendant to testify?” the judge asks.

Maybe if we’re in China, I thought.

In the U.S.A., there’s the little matter of the Fifth Amendment. The choice to testify belongs solely to the defendant. The prosecution cannot call the defendant to testify.

The Worst Courtroom Drama in History

The prize for Most Ludicrous Courtroom Drama Ever goes to the film “Double Jeopardy,” a 1999 Ashley Judd potboiler.

courtroom drama potboiler
Courtroom Drama: Ashley Judd has a foolproof way to get away with murder…but it would never work.

A woman convicted of killing her husband gets early release from prison and discovers her hubby had faked his death and is still alive. She decides to kill him because “double jeopardy” prevents her from being charged with his murder a second time.

No, it doesn’t! The supposed murder six years earlier is a different crime, with different facts at a different time and place. The woman can be charged if she kills the faker today. (If it were up to me, the screenwriter would go to jail along with the homicidal woman).

If you want a tough case, how’s this?   You remember the television show starring Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal, a ditzy young, mini-skirted lawyer.  Well, once Ally strongly considered the possibility of suing God.

courtroom drama ally
Courtroom drama was never as nuts as on “Ally McBeal.”

No wonder Wikipedia describes the show as a “surreal dramedy.”  To be fair, Ally actually refused to sue God on behalf of a little boy dying of leukemia. The kid came from a hard-luck family. Years earlier, a lightning bolt had killed the boy’s father. Another lawyer in her firm suggested that the lightning was an “act of God,” so they could sue the Big Guy for that, as well as for the kid’s leukemia. Who says we don’t need tort reform?

The portrayal of the justice system in popular entertainment has changed substantially over the years. In Perry Mason’s world, the D.A. was a likeable dullard, and every client was innocent. More recently, on “Law & Order,” the prosecutors were indignant and intelligent, and the defendants almost always guilty.

courtroom drama, law order
Sam Waterston portrayed prosecutor Jack McCoy in television’s most successful courtroom drama series.

My favorite character was Jack McCoy, the hard-nosed prosecutor given to confrontational dialogue:

“Your grief might seem a little more real had you not just admitted you cut off your wife’s head.”

“The last time I checked, ‘stupid’ isn’t a defense to murder.”

“You played me, you son-of-a-bitch!”

Courtroom Drama Goofs

Here are some of the common courtroom drama fallacies foisted upon us by screenwriters and novelists:

“We lost the case on a legal technicality.” Really? Is that what you call the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures?

“Put yourself in my client’s shoes,”the lawyer says to the jury.  No way! In real life, it’s commendable to live by the “Golden Rule.” In closing argument, it will get you a mistrial.

“Objection! Counsel is badgering the witness.” I don’t know how this got started, but it’s epidemic on television. There’s no such objection under the Rules of Evidence. “Argumentative” gets the point across, and it’s what real lawyers say.

Still, I had fun with this objection in my novel “Lassiter.” After the prosecutor accuses our hero of badgering the witness, Lassiter responds: “It’s my job to badger the witness. I get paid to badger the witness.”

courtroom drama lassiter
Hard-boiled lawyer Jake Lassiter gets paid to badger witnesses.

My Courtroom Drama Mea Culpa

My legal thrillers are not immune to criticism. A dozen years ago, I co-created the Supreme Court drama, “First Monday,” on CBS.  The Wall Street Journal gleefully described the show as a “moronic melodrama.” Yeah, I feel the same about the paper’s editorials.

Then there was the Justice Department lawyer who took issue with the portrayal of the Supreme Court in my novel “Impact.”   (Originally published in hardcover as “9 Scorpions.”) The legal thriller is about an attempt to fix a case at the nation’s highest court. In a scholarly piece – it had 171 footnotes! — John B. Owen, Esq. objected to a female law clerk having an affair with her boss, the newest, youngest Justice. Wouldn’t happen, he wrote in the University of California Law Review.  What really irked Barrister Owen, however, was a scene at the Court’s Christmas party where the female clerk performed a partial strip-tease.  Lacked “authenticity,” he wrote.

Owen also criticized David Baldacci’s “The Simple Truth” and Brad Meltzer’s “The Tenth Justice,” both set at the Supreme Court. He found both unrealistic and declared that “‘The Tenth Justice’ won’t win any awards for its attention to finer detail.”

But doesn’t that miss the point? “Finer detail” is not what fiction is all about. A novelist need only create an imaginary world that is real in the broader sense. Compelling stories involving the quest for justice or the thirst for revenge or a host of other inner needs can emerge from a setting that is an approximation of reality. And if all else fails, write a scene involving a strip-tease at the Supreme Court’s Christmas party.

Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter: Flirting with Disbarment

Jake Lassiter faces disbarment in “Last Chance Lassiter,” the prequel to the ten-book series featuring the Miami Dolphins linebacker turned trouble-prone lawyer. In the novella, a young Lassiter – a few years out of night law school – slugs a client. Why? The transcript of his Bar Disciplinary Hearing answers the question, as he spars with the judge assigned to his case.

************************************************************************************

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA

THE FLORIDA BAR, Case Number SC-14-238
Petitioner

vs.

JAKE LASSITER,
Respondent

TRANSCRIPT OF BAR DISCIPLINARY HEARING

**************************************************************************************

JUDGE BUCKSTROM: Apparently, Mr. Lassiter, you have a propensity for violence.

JAKE LASSITER: Not really, Your Honor. The only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Q: How’s that?

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

Q: But in this case, Mr. Lassiter, you have admitted striking your own client.

A: Technically, he wasn’t my client. It was our first meeting, and I hadn’t agreed to represent him.

Q: So why did you hit him?

A: He came at me with a baseball bat from the collection on my office wall. Barry Bonds. Mark McGuire. Alex Rodriguez.

Q: You collect from any players who didn’t break the rules?

A: Innocent until proven juiced, Your Honor.

Flirting with Disbarment
Jake flirts with disbarment in “Last Chance Lassiter.”

Q: So your testimony is…your prospective client attacked you with your own bat?

A: Under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, I could have shot him with a machine gun.

Q: The complainant swears you hauled off and slugged him without provocation.

A: So he’s a liar in addition to being a wife beater.

Q. Now, hold on, Mr. Lassiter.

A: He was charged with spousal abuse and wanted me to suborn perjury. Specifically, he said–

Q: Stop right there! That’s hearsay.

A: I thought this was an informal proceeding.

Q: My report to the Florida Supreme Court is damn formal, pardon my French. And you, sir, are flirting with disbarment.

A: (inaudible)

Q: Did you just laugh, Mr. Lassiter?

A: Sorry, Your Honor. Flirting with Disbarment. Sounds like my life story.

Q: Indeed. I’ve reviewed the litany of Bar Complaints against you. Are you familiar with Florida Bar Rule Seven-D?

A: Not really, but if it’s only number seven, how important can it be?

Q: What!

A: Like in the Ten Commandments. Number seven outlaws adultery. No biggie, if you look at the statistics.

Q: Mr. Lassiter, Rule Seven-D states that “Lawyers must comport themselves with dignity.”

A: Sounds like a slap-on-the-wrist offense. Can I plead nolo and get a sternly worded letter from Tallahassee?

Q: Assault and battery is a felony, and a felony is a disbarable offense.

A: Disbarable? Is that even a word?

Q: That’s enough! Your flippancy will be noted.

A: Now, flippancy is definitely a word. But a funny one. No way can you say flippancy and not smile.

Q: What about the word disbarment? Want to crack wise about that one? Disbarment! Disbarment! Disbarment!

A: I get your point, Judge. I just do things my own way.

Q: If you don’t follow the Ethical Rules, just how do you go about practicing law?

A: I look for a cause that’s just, a client I like, and a check that doesn’t bounce.

Q: How’s that working for you?

A: I seldom win the trifecta.

Q: I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Do you have any remorse? Do you regret striking your client? Your prospective client.

A: My Granny taught me that any man who hits a woman is a low-life scumsucker, and if I were ever to see such a thing, I should put a stop to it. Well, I couldn’t stop this bastard, so I just called him a bully and a coward who doubted his own manhood, a pussycat pretending to be a tiger. He’d been admiring the Barry Bonds black maple bat. I was hoping he’d come at me with it. When he did, he swung more like Barry Manilow than Barry Bonds. I ducked and caught him with a left jab to the jaw followed by a right hook to the gut. He tossed his cookies on my loafers.

A: So you have no regrets about this violent incident, which could lead to your disbarment?

Q: Sure, I do, Your Honor. I regret getting caught.

#

“Last Chance Lassiter” is available in paperback and as an ebook from Amazon. More information on the Jake Lassiter Series Pages.