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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Mystery writers are hit with this question all the time. “Where do you get your ideas?”
“I steal them,” I usually reply.
Sounds flippant, but it’s true. I’ve often stolen – or borrowed – real people and events for my fictional legal thrillers. My first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” involved a physician charged with killing a patient with an injection of succinylcholine, a drug that paralyzes the lungs. Pretty inventive…except a Florida doctor had been convicted of killing his wife just that way 25 years earlier.
In real life, the doctor was sentenced to life in prison but was paroled after serving 12 years. So, in Florida, it seems, a horrific premeditated spousal homicide will get you a neat dozen years.
My path to joining the ranks of mystery writers started with covering the courts, then practicing law for 17 years. After a first stint writing legal thrillers, I spent several years working in television (“JAG,” “First Monday”) where one of my great pleasures was writing dialogue for James Garner and Charles Durning, the Chief Justice and Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in our fictional world).
As for my fictional justice system, it’s a place teeming with incompetence, corruption, and wackiness. That stems from real life, too. Mine.
A week after graduating from Penn State, I started work as a criminal court reporter with The Miami Herald. Unfortunately, having never been in a courtroom, I didn’t know habeas corpus from an bottlenose porpoise. A prosecutor took pity, showed me around, and taught me a few Latin expressions. (“Mero Motu,” it turns out, is not a greeting in Tokyo, but rather an act undertaken on the court’s own motion).
While covering the courts, I began having lunch with the prosecutor and two of his colleagues. They wowed me with their war stories, singing paeans to the majesty of the law and the high calling of public service. So sure enough, I went to law school, and my three prosecutor pals became judges. Now, flash forward 20 years. Those judges must be deans of the profession, right? Nope. All three are in federal prison, convicted of bribery, one of them for “selling” the name of a confidential informant so the defendant could arrange his murder.
Is It Any Wonder Mystery Writers Get Cynical?
So is it any wonder that I’m cynical about the halls of justice, where as Lenny Bruce once complained, the only justice is in the halls? Is it a surprise that judges in my books tend to be myopic, forgetful, and occasionally crooked? (One judge, in a lame-brained attempt to be fair, simply alternates rulings on objections. “Sustained.” “Overruled.” “Sustained.” “Overruled.”)
But back to the Miami courthouse in 1970 where, as a fledgling reporter, I also made friends with the Courthouse Gang, a multi-ethnic posse of retirees who showed up every day for the free entertainment. My buddies all knew a good story and invariably guided me to the right courtroom and filled me in on testimony I missed. The Gang lives on in fiction, as mystery writers love colorful characters.
Myron (The Maven) Mendelsohn, Teresa Toraño, and Cadillac Johnson use their unique skills to help the squabbling lawyers in my “Solomon vs. Lord” novels.
Another fascinating real trial found me interviewing aging mobster Meyer Lansky, who was charged with bringing through Customs personal ulcer medication for which he didn’t have a current prescription. In the law, the technical name for that charge is “chicken-shit harassment.”
My interviews of Lansky basically consisted of me asking him questions and him asking if I wasn’t too young to be a reporter. He seemed to be a courtly old gentleman, and I stole (“borrowed”) that part of his personality to create Max Perlow, the aging Miami gangster in “Lassiter.”
As a young man, Perlow worked in a pre-Castro Havana casino for…Meyer Lansky. (Mystery writers also make things up).
The last trial I covered as a reporter was a doozy. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was charged with indecent exposure for exposing himself at a Miami concert. One of the prosecutors was a mini-skirted former beauty queen named Ellen Morphonios, renowned for her ribald sense of humor. Just before opening statements, Ellen told me her trial strategy: “I’m gonna have the clerk stamp that dirtbag’s equipment and call it ‘State’s Exhibit One.’” Hey, you don’t hear that on CNN.
Morrison was convicted, then died at age 27 in Paris while the case was on appeal. While no autopsy was performed, speculation has long been that Morrison died of a heroin overdose. (Wikipedia relates several conflicting accounts of the singer’s death).
Courtrooms may look like churches, trimmed with mahogany and exuding an air of solemnity. And sure, some proceedings are deadly dull, but there’s a surprising amount of humor between bench and bar.
In my first year practicing law, I tried a case before a colorful old judge named Frederick Barad. I thought I was doing great, but in closing argument, I noticed that a juror was sound asleep.
“Your Honor,” I whispered, gesturing toward juror number three, who was snoring loudly.
“What do you want from me?” the judge replied. “You put him to sleep. You wake him up.”
The courtroom has been keeping me awake – and entertained – for nearly four decades. These days, my job is to pass that along to readers.
For more information about my “Jake Lassiter” and “Solomon vs. Lord series, please visit my Amazon Author Page.
Finally, I’ve been tossing around the term “mystery writers” interchangeably with “thriller writers.” Technically there are differences, but that’s a subject for another day. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia lists me as a “major author” (hooboy!) of legal thrillers and a mystery novelist.
(Author Interviews Note by Paul Levine: The closest I ever got to Harvard was in 1973 when its law school offered me admission to its LL.M. program. I was just about to graduate from the University of Miami Law School and thought I wanted to be a professor. Oh, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I was a new father and needed a paying job, not more tuition, so I reluctantly said “no thanks.” This week I sat down with Mary Yuhas of The Harvard Square who grilled me with questions, both literary and personal. (Hemingway was unavailable). This is adapted from her article, which appeared February 12, 2014).
Author Interviews: Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Paul Levine
The author of 18 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The critically acclaimed international bestseller To Speak for the Dead featuring Jake Lassiter was his first novel. Levine is also the author of the Solomon vs. Lord series and the thrillers Illegal, Ballistic, Impact, and Paydirt. His most recent novel is State vs. Lassiter. He is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School. More information on his website.
Author Interviews: The Q & A
H.S.: How did you begin your writing career?
Paul: I blame windsurfing. I was on vacation in Maui and got injured windsurfing off the North Shore. It was hard to walk so for two weeks. I had nothing to do but lie on the beach. I had a pen and a yellow legal pad, which was useful because, at the time, I was a lawyer. I was thinking about a case of mine in which an old man’s busty secretary set up the theft of $2 million in negotiable bonds from his home office. In real life, the story was fairly boring. I got the bonds back; no one went to jail, but I saw possibilities for fiction…involving windsurfing.
H.S.: So you started writing in longhand on a legal pad?
Paul: This was a long time ago. A “laptop” was a dance in a strip club. Anyway, I scribbled one sentence on the legal pad: “The old man loved money, gadgets, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three.” It’s the first line of fiction I ever wrote unless you count all the legal briefs I filed over the years. The sentence got me started. It opens chapter one of Riptide, one of the Jake Lassiter series.
H.S.: Your novels “often have a sly, sardonic tone,” according to Wikipedia.
Paul: They’re one to talk.
H.S.: Seriously, you often write about murder trials, and yet you often bring humor into play.
Paul: As Jake Lassiter points out, there’s a hilarious sign in every courtroom in Miami: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” Then there’s Steve Solomon who makes up his own rules: “When the law doesn’t work…work the law.” Let’s just say that, having tried cases for 17 years, I have a healthy skepticism about what Lassiter terms the “so-called justice system.”
H.S.: If you were starting out today, would you look for an agent or publish via an e-book?
Paul: I would definitely try the traditional approach of a getting an agent and a legacy publisher. Self-publishing a single work without a backlist is very, very difficult. How many ebooks are out there? Five million? Six million? More? How do you get noticed? The optimum way is the old hardcover/paperback deal. Or trade paperback by a recognized publisher.
The Equation: Writing Equals Rejection Squared
H.S. Did you ever have doubts about your writing ability, especially after harsh criticism or literary agent rejections? How did you handle it and what do you suggest to others?
Paul: I am filled with self-doubt! I am always surprised when a story works, or dialogue zings, or a character becomes real. I wrote two books on spec that never sold to publishers. Yes, that hurt. I also now see the weaknesses in those books. I also wrote many spec features that didn’t sell to Hollywood and wrote TV pilots (both hired by the networks and on spec) that didn’t were never made. There should be an equation. Writing equals Rejection Squared. Advice? Handle it! Persevere. Don’t whine. Put your butt in the chair and write!
H.S.: What’s the biggest mistake first time authors often make?
Paul: Impatience, which causes poor writing. With beginning writers, there’s a tendency to think you’re done when you’ve finished with your first or second draft. Unless you are a genius, which I’m not, you’ve just reached second base. To score a run, you’ve got to rewrite and rewrite. Hemingway said, “all good writing is rewriting.” Take his advice. Rewrite and polish.
H.S.: Any other tips for first-time-authors?
Paul: Read good authors in a field you enjoy. But DON’T copy their style. There’s nothing worse than a faux Elmore Leonard. Read books about story structure and writing novels. There are really too many to recommend, but Stephen King’s book On Writing comes to mind. And, of course, write!
H.S.: Is it easier or harder to get into writing today than when you started?
Paul: It’s harder to break into traditional publishing than when I started in the 1980s with Bantam because there are fewer major publishers. There has been some growth in smaller, independent presses, which is good, but the flip side is that the amount of the advance is generally less. But then, there is the new world of self-publishing on the internet with Amazon and its competitors. Nothing wrong with that, but there seems to be a myth that self-publishing ebooks is an easy way to riches and fame. That’s not the case.
H.S.: Author Interviews wants to know: how long does it take you to write a book?
Paul: From idea to concept to research to outline to writing and revisions, it takes me nine months to a year for most of the series books. I already have my protagonist and his world in my head. I don’t need to drive to the courthouse to see what a courtroom looks like. For standalones, such as Illegal, it took closer to a year and 1/2 to two years Part of the book is written from the point of view of a young Mexican woman and part from her 12-year-old son’s POV. I was terrified I could not write in the voice of a 30-year-old female illegal alien. In the end, I believe it turned out well.
H.S.: How did you break into writing TV screenwriting?
Paul: I became friends with fellow Penn State grad Don Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap,” and “JAG,” among others. He enjoyed my books, and I enjoyed his shows. When he wrote the two-hour pilot of “JAG,” he shared it with me. I told him I liked it very much, but did television really want a show about Navy lawyers? (What did I know! The show ran 10 years and about 220 episodes). Anyway, in the third season, Don asked if I wanted to write a script as a free-lancer. I’d written a couple of TV pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, and I thought I understood the voice of the show and could write those characters, so I did it, and the episode aired pretty much the way I wrote it.
The next year, I freelanced another script for “JAG,” and the year after that, Don asked me to move to Los Angeles and work full-time on the show. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But I had just written one of those spec novels that didn’t sell. So I took the job, which frankly paid WAY more money that I expected. And the Writers Guild has a helluva health plan and a pension plan, something book authors don’t get. Of course, occasionally you have to stop working and hit the picket lines. I’m a big believer in unions, by the way. Without Hollywood unions, there’d be no royalties, pensions, or health plans.
In my second season on the show, I took an idea to Don for a drama set at the Supreme Court, focusing on the interactions between the justices and the law clerks. (It was loosely based on my Supreme Court thriller, Impact.) Don liked it; Les Moonves at CBS liked it; and it became the short-lived “First Monday.” Don and I co-wrote the pilot, which starred James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning and folded after 13 episodes, with some of the oldest demographics in the history of television. Or as I like to say, we were a hit with the crowd between Medicare and the mortuary.
H.S.: Any Author Interviews tips for writers interested in script writing?
Paul: Read Robert Towne’s script of “Chinatown.” Read “Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. And good luck.
H.S.: Any truth to the rumor that you steered a nuclear submarine?
Paul: One of the perks on “JAG” was that the writers got to hang out with the U.S. Navy, without having to be in actual danger. One day, we flew from a naval base to an aircraft carrier. The landing was pretty cool. Another day, we spent on a Los Angeles class attack submarine. And yes, they let me steer it for about 30 seconds. No international incidents occurred as a result.
H.S.: Finally, thank you for sitting down with Author Interviews. What’s in your future?
Paul: I read a lot of emails from readers. The ones who don’t point out typos are evenly divided between writing a new Lassiter or another in the Solomon vs. Lord series. If anyone out there has an idea, I’m open to it and can always be contacted through my website. And, living in Miami, I am still trying to make the perfect mojito.
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.”
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.
“[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.
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?
The two heavyweights of legal thrillers, John Grisham and Scott Turow, have new novels out at the same time. We examined Grisham’s blockbuster “Sycamore Row”in a prior blog. Today, let’s take a look at the books of Scott Turow, starting with his law school memoir and concluding with his current bestselling “Identical.”
First, a bit of Turow’s background. He graduated with high honors from Amherst, studied and taught writing at Stanford and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. He is also president of the prestigious Author’s Guild and still practices law part-time. According to Wikipedia, “Turow works pro bono in most of his cases, including a 1995 case where he won the release of Alejandro Hernandez, who had spent 11 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.”
The Books of Scott Turow
(1977) Basically a journal of Turow’s first year at Harvard Law, it is still in print and required reading for anyone contemplating the rigors (and mortis) of law school.
(1987) My favorite legal thriller of all time. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich goes on trial for the murder of his colleague…and mistress.
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
(1990) Sandy Stern, the defense lawyer in “Presumed Innocent,” suffers a tragedy when his wife commits suicide and thus begins a journey of self-discovery and another foray into the criminal justice system.
(1993) Money and a star litigator go missing from a law firm, and it’s up to an ex-cop turned lawyer to find them…and trouble.
THE LAWS OF OUR FATHERS
(1996) Judge Sonia Klonsky, from “The Burden of Proof” narrates a complex tale involving a murder trial. As is frequent in Turow’s novels, secrets of the past emerge in explosive ways.
(1999) A P.I. lawyer with a penchant for bribing judges gets nabbed. Wearing a wire to trap others, he is supervised by FBI agent Evon Miller (who will re-appear in “Identical”). Their relationship is the heart of the tale.
(2002) This one has it all: a man on Death Row, a reluctant defense lawyer, and possible new evidence that can exonerate the condemned. Not an original concept, but in Turow’s hands, a richly woven tale.
(2005) Family secrets are again at the heart of the story, but this one is a change of pace as a man searches for the truth about his father’s combat and court-martial during World War II.
(2006) The shortest of Turow’s novels, “Limitations” was originally published in The New York Times Magazine. A judge, a rape trial, and questions about morality are at the center of the story.
(2010) Rusty Sabich from “Presumed Innocent” is back. Now, he’s a judge having an affair…and accused of killing his wife. One of my favorites.
Which brings us to…
(2013) A state senator runs for mayor just as his identical twin is released from prison, 25 years after pleading guilty to the murder of his girlfriend. The novel is said to take its inspiration from the myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins born to Leda, after she was raped by Zeus. (I have to confess I had no idea Zeus was such a lout). Early reviews have been mixed. Writing in “The New York Times Book Review,” Adam Liptak complained:
“‘Identical” is stuffed with so many themes and reversals that readers may end up feeling the way you do after a long family meal with too much talk and food: disoriented, logy and a little nostalgic. Turow has many gifts. He might consider being a little more parsimonious in doling them out.”
At another point in the review, however, Liptak states:
“Still, the rich, sharp courtroom scenes, always Turow’s specialty, are the best parts of the book. He is particularly good at showing how judges use minor rulings to nudge a case to their preferred outcome.”
Now, Turow doesn’t need my help selling books. But, as always with reviews, it’s better to read the book…and make your own decision. What’s your verdict on the books of Scott Turow?