Jake Lassiter, Meet Solomon & Lord

bum rap bum luck bum deal

How did Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, get together with those squabbling law partners, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord? I’m glad you asked. The answer can be found in “Bum Rap,” which opens with a bang. Literally. The first chapter consists of four paragraphs:

The gunshot hit Nicolai Gorev squarely between the eyes. His head snapped back, then whiplashed forward, and he toppled face-first onto his desk.

There were two other people in the office of Club Anastasia.

Nadia Delova, the best Bar Girl between Moscow and Miami, stared silently at Gorev, blood oozing from his ears. She had seen worse.

Steve Solomon, a South Beach lawyer with a shaky reputation, spoke over the echo still ringing off the walls. “I am in deep shit,” he said.

bum rap
Jake Lassiter meets Solomon & Lord in “Bum Rap”

Let’s leap ahead a few pages. Solomon’s law partner and lover, Victoria Lord, asks Lassiter to represent Solomon when he’s charged with murder. Here’s their first fractious meeting, as related in first person by Lassiter:

If there is a more dispiriting place in Miami than the county jail, I haven’t found it . . . and I’ve spent a lot of time at the morgue. Approaching the jail, you can hear the anguished shouts of inmates, yelling through the barred windows at their wives, girlfriends, and homies below. Inside, you’ve got that institutional smell, as if a harsh cleanser has been laced with urine. Buzzers blare and lights flash. Steel crashes against steel as doors bang shut with the finality of a coffin closing.

I found Solomon and Lord in the lawyer visitation room. Looking at my new customer – excuse me, client – I said, “First rule, Solomon. You have to tell me the truth.”

“No problem, counselor,” he replied. “Like I tell my clients, ‘Lie to your spouse, your priest, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.’”

“Lie to your spouse?” Victoria gave him a pained look.

“Just an expression, Vic.”

“Second rule,” I said. “Don’t leave anything out, no matter how embarrassing.”

“We’re on the same page, Lassiter. Now, why don’t I just tell you what happened?”

“Third rule,” I said, ignoring his request. “In trial, don’t lean over and whisper in my ear.”

“Why the hell not?”

“You’ll distract me. Plus I won’t be able to hear the testimony.”

“You’ve got two ears.”

“I had multiple concussions playing ball and I’ve got some hearing loss.”

Solomon turned to Victoria. “You brought me a deaf lawyer?”

“Plus I’m bone tired of clients who try to tell me what to do.”

“A deaf, punch-drunk, burnout lawyer.”

“If you have a question you want me to ask on cross, just write a note on a legal pad in large block letters.”

“You going blind, too?”

“I’ll read your note and decide what to do.”

Solomon reached across the table, grabbed my pad and pen, and scribbled something. Then he shoved the pad back at me: “SCREW YOU, LASSITER!”

“I think you’ve got the hang of it,” I said.

“Now, if we’re done with your rules,” he said, “I’ll speak loudly so you can hear and slowly so you can understand. What’s the chance you can get me bail?”

“First degree murder. No chance.”

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Victoria said.

“It’s okay, hon. Been here lots of times for contempt.” He turned to me, grinning. “Does that shock you, Lassiter?”

“Not that you’ve been held in contempt. Only that you consider it a merit badge.”

“A lawyer who’s afraid of jail is like a surgeon who’s afraid of blood.”

“Glad you’re comfortable here. If we lose, life without parole won’t seem so bad.”

Kindle Matchbook deal
Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord’s first adventure.

Solomon looked as if he wanted to do to me what the state said he did to the Russian. “Lassiter, you have a remarkable ability not to inspire confidence in a client.”

I shrugged. “Why don’t you tell me your story and see if you can inspire my belief in your innocence?”

“Before I do, promise you won’t get on that white horse of yours and start making moral judgments.”

“I’m a lawyer. I make legal judgments.”

“Good. Because I remember when you were charged with killing your banker.”

Yet more proof, I thought, that our past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats. “Bum rap,” I said.

“So’s this!” Solomon wheeled toward Victoria, his dark eyes lighting up. “I get it now. You hired Lassiter because he’s been wrongfully charged, and you think he can relate to me in some band-of-brothers, soldiers-in-the-foxhole way.”

Victoria smiled. “I think you two have more in common than either of you may realize.”

“Doubt it,” my client and I said simultaneously.

“You both believe that the justice system is flawed,” Victoria said.

“The so-called justice system,” I added.

“The ex-jock is right,” Solomon said. “The system is riddled with human frailty.”

I nodded. “Lousy judges. Lazy lawyers. Sleeping jurors. The innocent go to jail and the guilty go free.”

“I’m with you on this, Lassiter.” He sounded positively delighted. “Your job is to do everything you can to win, even if you have to break some dishes . . . or some ethical rules.”

“Only the small ones,” I said. “Now, tell me what happened at Club Anastasia.”

Solomon began by describing how a Russian bar-girl named Nadia Delova came to his office, asking for help in getting back pay from club owner Nicolai Gorev. Then he got to the juicy part.

“Bum Rap” is available in e-book, print, and audio formats. Oh, that reference to Lassiter being charged with killing his banker. That’s a short novel titled “State vs. Lassiter.” Because all the Lassiter novels are stand-alones, they can be enjoyed in any order.

Why Does Jake Lassiter Want to Kill His Own Client?

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter has been in scrapes before. I’ve put the linebacker-turned-lawyer into lots of ethical, moral and physical jams.

Lassiter has had an affair with a woman while defending her gangster husband in court in MORTAL SIN.

He’s been charged with murder for allegedly killing his banker/girlfriend who was about to report him for stealing client funds in STATE vs. LASSITER.

Doing his own legwork defending his pal Steve Solomon in a murder case, he gets stomped by Russian mobsters in BUM RAP.

Poor Jake Lassiter

I sometimes feel guilty for handing Lassiter such a rough life. In a dozen legal thrillers, he has flirted with disbarment, death…and dangerous dames. But now…oh now, he faces his greatest opponent yet: himself.

“Thirty seconds after the jury returned its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”

That’s the opening line of BUM LUCK. Jake Lassiter has just WON a murder trial, successfully defending Miami Dolphins’ superstar Thunder Thurston, charged with killing his wife. Problem is, Lassiter believes his client is guilty and vows to do something about it. Rough justice. Vigilante justice.

Lassiter’s pals Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord are stunned. “You must have played football too long without a helmet,” Solomon says, not realizing the nugget of truth embedded in the wisecrack.

jake lassiter bum luck
In “Bum Luck,” Jake Lassiter is in his deepest jam yet.

Lassiter begins to suffer crippling headaches and memory loss. He’s even more irritable than usual. And his plan to kill his own client rattles family and friends. His bizarre behavior extends to his law practice. The State Attorney believes Lassiter bribed a juror in the Thurston murder trial. His denial – claiming he wanted to lose the case – gets him nowhere. A grand jury plans to indict Lassiter for bribery, even as he plots to kill his client.

Jake Lassiter Defends Satan: an Insurance Company

Lassiter’s life gets even messier when he’s forced to represent an insurance company that refuses to pay the orphaned children of a deceased martial arts fighter. “Defending insurance companies is like fiddling with the thermostat in hell,” he complains.

In the course of the civil case, Jake Lassiter crosses paths with Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist with a specialty in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) It’s the fatal brain disease afflicting retired N.F.L. players. Long-time readers will recall that Lassiter suffered numerous concussions as a football player, including one play in which he made the tackle, recovered a fumble, got turned around, and ran to wrong end zone. That earned him the unfortunate nickname “Wrong Way Lassiter,” something that followed him from gridiron to courtroom.

So, yes, I’ve placed my hero on a shaky tree limb and I’m tossing rocks at him. Will he fall or make his way safely to terra firma?

– Will Lassiter kill Thunder Thurston…or be killed?

– Does Lassiter suffer from C.T.E.?

– Will he lose his practice…and his life?

When pre-publication news leaked out about the plot, some readers wrote me, pleading not to kill Lassiter. “Are you insane?” one asked. “Why would you kill your meal ticket and my guilty pleasure?”

Well, it’s not as if I’d be the first author to knock off a main character. I suppose Brutus could have only wounded Julius Caesar, but that’s not the way it played out. Not to mention Hamlet, Macbeth, and BOTH Romeo and Juliet.

But no spoilers here. I’m rooting for Lassiter to make it out of this jam and hope you are, too.

For more info and to read an excerpt, please check out this site’s BUM LUCK PAGE.

BUM LUCK is available in ebook, paperback, and audio formats from Amazon. Or, if you prefer, here are the links to order trade paperbacks from Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

My Worst Book Reviews Ever: “Author Needs a Shrink.”

worst book reviews

Stephen J. Cannell put me in my place.

About 20 years ago, I was having lunch with Steve at Bistro Garden, his favorite place in Studio City, and somewhere between the gazpacho and the cheeseburger, I boasted about a glowing book review in The Miami Herald. The legendary television writer and producer replied, “If you believe your best reviews, you gotta believe your worst ones, too.”

I didn’t want to hear it.

Worst  book reviews have to be believed, too.
Steve Cannell was responsible for “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” and a couple dozen more shows, and also became a best-selling novelist late in his career.

Sure, I have lots of newspaper clippings filled with glorious words like “riveting” and “breathlessly exciting,” but with the advent of reader reviews on Amazon, I’m also the target of some double-barreled smackdowns from folks who leave no unkind word unsaid.

Here’s the entirety of a 1-star review of BUM RAP.

“I must have been drunk when I downloaded this book.”

In my defense, I was quite sober when writing BUM RAP, which was briefly the Number One bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. But wait! That’s being defensive. I want to take Steve’s advice and listen to the criticism and learn from it. Consider this scathing remark from a female reader:

“This is nothing but rubbish written by a horny man. The story seemed decent, but the characters were unable to accomplish anything because of their animal attraction to anything that moves.”

Grrrrrr! That’s my animalistic growl. The inspiration for BUM RAP was a federal racketeering trial in Miami, known locally as the “Russian Bar Girls case.” Some of the testimony was as racy as anything in the book. Here’s a brief exchange from the transcript between the prosecutor and a Russian bar girl:

Q: Did you zip down men’s pants?

A: Yes, touch them, kiss them, anything you can think.

Q: Giving them hope that they would have sex with you?

A: All my behavior was inclining to this.

“Giving Men Hope” became a chapter title, and men’s idiotic conduct around women moved the story along, as it does in real life.

My favorite review of BUM RAP contained this curt dismissal:

“I didn’t even finish the first chapter.”

Ouch! The first chapter is exactly seven sentences long. (CLICK HERE and scroll down the page to “Read an Excerpt” to find that chapter. I hope you finish it).

Many one-star reviews make no literary judgments. Witness this short but not sweet doozy concerning FLESH & BONES:

Worst Book Reviews: Flesh & Bones

“I did not order this book.

Fair enough, but I didn’t send it to you! Then there’s this brief put-down of THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI:

“There are no hummingbirds in Germany.”

Fine. There also are no hummingbirds in THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI, which is set in the Florida Keys and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award.

worst book reviews alibi
Worst Book Reviews: “The Deep Blue Alibi,” nominated for an Edgar , has 3% one-star reviews, and all of them sting.

Some readers take the time for actual literary criticism. This reader gave one star to TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, the first of the Jake Lassiter series:

“The book is ludicrous and with a completely unlikable so-called hero.”

Whoa, that’s my meal ticket you’re talking about! She goes on:

“I also read three of Levine’s Solomon and Lord books and they got steadily worse. I give up on this guy. He not only writes badly, I’d say he needs a shrink.”

That upset me so much, I had to tell my shrink.

Another reader of TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD also questioned my mental state in this one-star put-down:

“Maybe 25 pages worth reading. The rest just stupid people and porn. Had me wondering if the author was a sex addict. Disgusting!”

Okay, so there are some bedroom hijinks, but “porn” is a little strong. The story is about a surgeon who’s having an affair with his patient’s wife. The patient dies suspiciously following surgery, and the surgeon and widow continue to get it on. The book is loosely based on a famous Florida murder trial that, like the bar girls’ case, had some titillating courtroom testimony.

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned lawyer.

Am I being too thin-skinned? Should I toughen up? Every author gets slammed. There are more than 200 one-star reviews of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, including this little ditty:

“Gives little, if any, guidance on the killing of mockingbirds. False advertising.”

Okay, that may be tongue-in-cheek, but here’s an apparently serious, punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness one-star review of the Harper Lee classic:

“It was terrible I didn’t like it at all i was so bored and stressed reading this awful book ugh”

It’s sometimes said that there are no wrong opinions, but facts are indisputable. Here’s a reader’s curt analysis of FALSE DAWN:

“One of the longest books ever.”

Hmm, the hardcover was 303 pages, about one-fourth the length of WAR AND PEACE. This reader would have given Tolstoy one star: “He should have stopped with WAR and saved PEACE for the sequel.” But maybe my book only seemed long, which means it’s my fault. Maybe I should write shorter books. Then again, when I wrote LAST CHANCE LASSITER, a 25,000 word novella, I got a blistering review under the headline:

“More like Lassiter Light.”

bum deal the final chapter

My two most recent books are BUM LUCK, which has 92% four and five star reviews, and BUM DEAL, which has 96% and garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Now get this: neither has a one-star review.

But wait a second. Those books will be on Amazon long after Jake Lassiter tosses his briefcase into Biscayne Bay and long after I’m gone. So strike my earlier comment. I should have said: neither book has received a one-star review…yet. It’s only a matter of time.

# # #

Mystery Writers Find Truth in Fiction

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

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).

mystery writers on the Air
Charles Durning and James Garner in “First Monday”

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.”

mystery writers love lansky
Meyer Lansky was always pleasant to me but told me virtually nothing.

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).

mystery writers love gangsters
Aging gangster Max Perlow, in “Lassiter,” is loosely based on Meyer Lansky

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).

Mystery Writers love courtrooms
Singer Jim Morrison of The Doors leaving the courtroom where he was convicted.

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.

Best Novels vs. Favorite Novels

 

By Paul Levine

Did anyone ever ask Herman Melville which was a better book, “Moby-Dick” or “Billy Budd, Sailor?”

No, I’m not comparing myself with Melville. For one thing, he had a big, bushy beard. For another, I get seasick.

Still, I’m always fascinated when readers ask, “What’s the best book you’ve written?”

(Sticklers will likely say that no one asked Melville that question because “Billy Budd” was unfinished at his death and not published for another 30 years, but you get my point).

What were Herman Melville's best novels?
Herman Melville: What were his best novels? Who is to say?

When asked about my best novels or favorite novels, I usually give a smart-ass reply. “Who’s your favorite child?” That either gets a laugh or a promise never to buy another of my books. So today, I’m going to be serious and talk about the issue of best novels versus favorite novels.

First, disregarding the question about my own work, I have lots of “favorites,” including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Big Sleep,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Presumed Innocent,” and a bunch of others I can’t remember off the top of my head. Are they the best novels I’ve read? I can’t say. But they’ve stayed with me…in some cases for more than 40 years.

"The Grapes of Wrath"  Is it one of the best novels of all time
Is “The Grapes of Wrath” One of the Best Novels of All Time…or Just One of My Favorites?

What Are the Best Novels of All Time?

Now, what about the best novels of all time? Oh, there are lots of lists. The Modern Library names 100, with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – the bane of students everywhere – at the top. Library readers have their own list, naming Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as the greatest novel of all time. So much for popular taste! (I might complain that “Don Quixote,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “David Copperfield” aren’t on the list, but this is the “Modern Library.”)

My point is this. No survey of readers or poll of academics can choose the “best” novel, any more than they can select the best pizza in town. It’s all personal. You may love Margaret Mitchell’s iconic melodrama, “Gone With the Wind” (number 24 on the reader’s list), while I prefer Vladimir Nabokov’s satiric comedy “Lolita,” (number 4 on the board’s list). Neither of us is right or wrong.

I apply the same reasoning to literary prizes. Many years ago, on a self-improvement kick, I decided to read every novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction since 1980.

Are the Pulitzer winners of the 1980’s the Best Novels of the Decade?

Here’s the list:

“The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer

“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

“Rabbit Is Rich” by John Updike

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

“Ironweed” by William Kennedy

“Foreign Affairs” by Alison Lurie

“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

“A Summons to Memphis” by Peter Taylor

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

“Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler

Is "Lonesome Dove" one of the best novels of all time?
“Lonesome Dove” is a Pulitzer Winner, but is It one of the Best Novels of All Time?

Who can dispute the quality of these books? At the same time, we might ask what made “The Executioner’s Song” better than Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” nominated the same year. Or “Lonesome Dove” better than Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” also a finalist. The answer is that the Pulitzer Committee says so. The choices are, by necessity, subjective. Bluntly stated, the Pulitzer winners aren’t the “best” novels of the year. They’re simply the committee members’ “favorites.”

There’s even an entry for “great American novel” in Wikipedia, which defines the term as:

“[T]he concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen.”

And yes, Wikipedia lists “Moby-Dick” as one of the great American novels.

So back to my original question. Which novel of mine is my favorite? The answer may surprise long-time readers and friends. Most expect me to name “To Speak for the Dead,” the first of the Jake Lassiter series. Or “Solomon vs. Lord,” the first of that series. But my favorite is “Illegal,” a tale of human smuggling, loosely based on a true story. The plot involves a harrowing midnight crossing of the Mexican/U.S. border, a child separated from his mother, and a down-and-out lawyer’s attempt to reunite the pair after the mother is held against her will as a sexually abused migrant laborer. Unlike my hard-boiled legal thrillers or my lighter capers involving bantering lawyers, there’s more meat on these bones. I like to think that “Illegal” delivers an empathetic, layered story with strong thematic material that was treated seriously by the critics. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite…for now.

Paul Levine