It dawned on me recently that mystery writers do not think the same way that normal …um, I mean other … people think. It’s the little things: scanning the local crime reports and feeling a little disappointed that nothing eventful occurred during the night, watching the Pepsi delivery man at the grocery store to see if he’s really just delivering Pepsi, or wondering if the guy who runs the local gym is actually an evil ex-Ninja with sadistic tendencies plotting to take over the world. (Actually, I KNOW the guy has sadistic tendencies – you should see the exercises he thinks I should be able to do). But the real indicator happened last summer when I got locked out of my house.
This was not my fault, by the way. I was in the back yard when my daughter poked her head out the door to let me know she was leaving and by habit (and a very good habit it is) locked the door. Twenty minutes later, I turned the door knob to go inside and found the deadbolt doing the job for which it was designed. My first thought was a fairly standard, “Oh, no!” However, my second was…and I’m not kidding here… “I’ve always wanted to break into a house.”
The top half of my back door has one of those large windows with nine panes, and I had a toolbox on the porch. It seemed like Fate. In a flash of inspiration, I conceived the brilliant idea that I would break through the lower left pane, reach through the gap, and unlock the deadbolt. I even decided to time myself so I’d know just how long the hapless homeowners had between the first tinkling of shattered glass on the concrete floor and the inevitable brutal entry. Using a pair of sunglasses as eye protection, I placed an old towel over the pane and swung the hammer with a certain amount of trepidation.
It bounced like a superball off a brick wall.
Undaunted, I swung a second time. Once again I achieved only a bounce of the hammer and some seriously undamaged glass. Mildly annoyed, I dropped the towel, which was obviously providing too much protection, and tried again. The bounce, if anything, was higher. I gritted my teeth, widened my stance, and narrowed my eyes. Then, I lifted my arm and struck like a snake, assuming a snake had a hammer and the upper body strength of a toddler.
Completely annoyed, I gripped the hammer with both hands and began pounding with all my might. And finally – triumph! The glass broke.
Sort of. A single crack ran from the lower left pane all the way to the upper right pane. That’s when I realized that the “panes” were simply slats of wood across a very large single sheet of glass. I also realized that the repair was now going to be seriously expensive, but I’d already crossed the glass Rubicon so to speak. I hammered away until the glass finally crazed (it was safety glass and there would be no tinkling), and I was able to break out enough pieces to make a hole large enough for my hand.
Only my hand wouldn’t go through. After all that effort, my questing fingers stubbed against a second undamaged pane. Foiled by the curse of double glazing!
By now, enough time had passed that any hapless homeowners (assuming they hadn’t already loaded their shotguns) would have been able to call the police, get dressed, pop some popcorn, and sit laughing their hineys off while watching me through their impenetrable back door. Throwing my hammer down in disgust, I stalked off to my neighbor’s house to ask to use the phone to call my daughter.
Which is what non-mystery writers would have done in the first place, thus saving themselves a $250 repair bill. By the way, those back door windows come in a single prefabricated unit. The whole thing can be simply lifted out and replaced in a matter of minutes by a smart alecky young man who does not try nearly hard enough to mask his amusement. Still, I consider it to be $250 well spent. I gained a lot of knowledge about door construction, a new confidence regarding the security of my home, and a terrific scene which appears in the third Jocelyn Shore mystery, DEATH RIDES AGAIN. And more proof, if proof is needed, that mystery writers just do not think like other people.
Or maybe it’s just me.
A few years ago, I left the practice of law because I found the profession too stressful. I left the dark streets of New York for the bright sands of Hawaii, intent on taking life easy. I was determined, as many are, to make a career of my favorite hobby – writing.
But what to write? Well, I realized it was the novels of authors like John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Steve Martini that led me to law school in the first place. I’d studied law, practiced for several years in New York City, read and dissected every legal thriller I ever came across, and loved the genre, so the choice seemed clear. So from my 23rd floor lanai overlooking Waikiki Beach, I set out to write my first legal thriller, which would become my debut novel, ONE MAN’S PARADISE (Minotaur, April 2010).
That’s when I first realized writing a courtroom drama wasn’t nearly as easy as Grisham makes it seem. This time I wasn’t just preparing a defense; I was preparing a prosecution, too. And not only that – I was also deciding which objections would be sustained, which would be overruled. In other words, in addition to playing District Attorney and Defense Lawyer, I was playing Judge, too. But I couldn’t do any of that before taking the first step – planning a near perfect crime. Near perfect, because I had to leave clues for the police and my investigators to find. Yes, I was playing Criminal, too.
As difficult as it is preparing a case for trial, it’s even more daunting having to argue both sides of a case. Any lawyer will tell you that they’d much rather go up against a talented adversary than an inept one. See, having a talented adversary, you can better predict their moves. Getting pit against a dullard, well, who knows what’s going to happen? And who knows what a jury will do? The twelve men and women seated in the box just might feel sorry for your foe. And if you do too good a job beating up on your sympathetic adversary, the jury just might turn on you. And your client.
As the writer of a legal thriller, you must set the tone of the trial. There is no sitting back and simply reacting to what the other side does. You are the other side. At a glance, this might seem beneficial. But once you’ve thought it through, you’ll undoubtedly recognize the dilemma. See, lawyers don’t like to lose. Not even in fiction.
So once you’ve developed these characters you care for – this down-on-his-luck-defense lawyer, this overly-ambitious yet well-meaning prosecutor – you want them both to succeed. It pains you when they screw up. But three-quarters into the novel you realize, one of these guys fighting tooth-and-nail for what they believe in ultimately has to lose.
One of your guys (or girls) has to take one for the team, has to throw the fight. And that’s not easy for any lawyer, let alone a fictitious one that is a proud product of your mind, to do. But the reader wants an outcome. A mistrial just won’t do. Justice must be served, but don’t be fooled. Justice is not the goal of any attorney I’ve ever come up against. In the law, it’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose.
That’s not to mention all the work that needs to be done. Each of your lawyers must act as a respectable attorney would. Each side must prepare a case, draft and defend motions, read legal precedents, comfort his client or aid a victim’s grieving family. Each side must eventually step into that fictitious courtroom, confident of a win but prepared to lose. Whether the reader will “hear” opening statements in part or in their entirety, it doesn’t matter; opening statements must be prepared. Witness lists must be exchanged and each witness subjected to direct and cross examination. And remember, as a writer of legal thrillers, you must play the role of each witness, too. You must know your motivations, must know when to lie and when to tell the truth. It can be a dizzying experience.
The best advice for constructing a legal thriller may well be to outline the entire book before sitting down to write, but I fear a courtroom drama written that way will not ring true. After all, trials are anything but predictable. I’d rather take my shot at a roulette wheel in Vegas than a courtroom in Manhattan any day of the week.
So my advice is to let the trial play itself out on the page. Know which witnesses you are going to call, but give them leeway as to what they will say. Let them surprise you. That way, they will surprise your readers, too.
As for the jury’s final verdict, well, your guess is as good as mine. But do keep mind that juries don’t always get it right. Seldom do juries ever get the whole truth.
In writing your legal thriller, I say, toss away all notions of justice and fair play, and let your two lawyers have at it. Let them passionately argue their respective cases day and night in your mind. Let it get personal. Because, for lawyers, it often does.
And at the conclusion of the hard-fought trial, after the verdict is read, the prosecutor and defense lawyer don’t need to shake hands. In fact, as soon as you type “the end” on your manuscript, immediately begin a new one. And while the fire is still raging, the bad blood still boiling, let the two have at it again. Let them tear each other to pieces.
(This article first appeared on the award-winning blog Murder By 4 on Friday, May 7, 2010).
In my pre-eBook youth many years ago, I worked on 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan and walked home to my midtown apartment every night. One of my routes took me past a huge bookstore chain and, because I can’t resist a bookstore like I can’t resist a well-done order of fries, I always strolled inside to browse. Others may head straight to the bestseller wall, perhaps the biography, romance, sci-fi, or history sections. I made a beeline for mystery or non-fiction, depending on my mood. Hungry for adventure? Give me a mystery or a thriller and make it a series, please. Feeling a bit off? A selection of How-to-Snap-Out-of-Whatever or Quotes-to-Buck-Oneself-Up filled my arms at the cash register.
One late evening in the throes of literary ennui I wandered into the General Fiction section. To me, taking a chance in General Fiction was like online dating—what I saw on the profile (book jacket and title) rarely represented who walked into the café. By the middle of the first date latté (Chapter Three) I’d be planning an exit (DNF).
I cruised the wall of books—nope, nope, nope. Could it be? Would I walk out without a book? Would I be sentenced to, God forbid, prime time television?
An illustrated cover with a Post WWI-styled couple lit a twinkle in my eye. He sipped tea, with she smoking and twirling her pearls, and a snobbish butler offering a tray. A screwball comedy fan from way back, I took P.G. Wodehouse’s Much Obliged, Jeeves, to the register and—What ho!— began my infatuation with Wodehouse’s world of Bertie, Jeeves, Stiffy, Bingo, Gussie, and the aunts, et al. Seduced by a cover.
Wodehouse may not suit everyone’s taste. There was a definite language barrier to shellac as I read over my eggs and b with a rainbow round my shoulders. Once I conquered the pie-faced, plug-ugly task of suspending disbelief, I realized I was onto a good thing. I cheerfully ankled to the bookstore weekly until I exhausted their larder of Plum’s novels. Needless to say, but I will nonetheless, on my first jaunt to London I scuttled to a local bookshop and bought a copy of every Wodehouse novel unavailable across the pond.
I’ve been told Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry are genius as Bertie and Jeeves on PBS, but they’ll never replace the pair in my imagination. Happily, Simon Brett’s Blotto and Twinks series re-tickled my fancy for British humor, complete with a new language to absorb, and adding (to my delight) mystery with “the unavoidable presence of a know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth.” Well done, Brett.
But here’s the fly-in-the-ointment, the troubling aspect, the cloud over the picnic: What if back when I strolled into that NY bookstore for a diverting tome, I had instead been able to surf the ‘net for entertaining kibble to read on my Nook/Kindle/iPad/computer? Would I have tired of looking through 41,555,250 book titles before I reached the “W’s”? Never bothered to explore beyond the 101,970 offerings of Mysteries & Thrillers, or the 917,543 non-fiction selections? It hurts my heart to think Bertie, Jeeves, and I may never have met.
Visit a brick and mortar bookstore. Fall in love with a stranger on the shelves.
Three weeks ago I attended the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society Summer Bash, won the Best Hawaiian outfit contest, and did a live reading of the first scene in my new novel, BRUJA BROUHAHA. My winning outfit wasn’t captured for the ages, but my live read is posted here on YouTube.