It took several years of practicing criminal law in New York City for me to realize I never really wanted to be a lawyer—I wanted to be a protagonist in a legal thriller.
I grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, reading the novels of John Grisham, Scott Turow, and John Lescroart. I second-seated Steve Martini’s main character, defense lawyer Paul Madriani, during every criminal trial. I walked the mean streets of Philly with William Lashner’s sea-breeze-drinking attorney Victor Carl. There was a hostile witness behind every courtroom door, a man with a gun around every corner. And that, I decided, was the life I wanted to live. Seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans later, and I was a criminal defense attorney.
But wait. The legal world turned out to be a little different in Manhattan than it was in Scott Turow’s Kindle County. I opened an office downtown and hung my own shingle just like Victor Carl and Paul Madriani. Yet not a single six-foot blonde supermodel stepped through my door to tell me she was wrongly charged with murder. No, in fact, my clients were 98% male and they seemed kind of rough around the edges, not like the unjustly accused Yale graduate student you’d find in a paperback at LaGuardia.
And the judges, well, they were not amused by the antics you might find in a good John Grisham story. The prosecutors, the witnesses, the jurors—none of these characters were quirky at all. In fact, many of them were downright mean, and for some reason, no one was killing them off at the end of a particularly grueling case.
All right, so maybe using crime fiction wasn’t the best way to choose a career. My mistake. The question now was, how do I rectify it? After thoroughly searching the classifieds in newspapers and legal journals, I realized there wasn’t a big call for “lawyer protagonists.” Which gave me no choice but to create my own.
Enter Kevin Corvelli, a brash young criminal defense attorney who looked and sounded a lot like me. In the fall of 2005, Kevin and I simultaneously packed our bags and moved from New York to Hawaii. Kevin continued to practice criminal law, while I began to write about him. He was an interesting guy: smart, talented, handsome, and incredibly brave. This was as close as I’d ever come to being a protagonist in a legal thriller, and I was more than satisfied.
Kevin Corvelli first appeared in my debut novel One Man’s Paradise (Minotaur 2010), which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best First Novel and won the 2009 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. In Paradise, Corvelli—fresh off the plane in Honolulu—jumps into the case of an ex-law student charged with killing his gorgeous girlfriend on Oahu’s world-famous Waikiki Beach.
Living vicariously through Kevin Corvelli, I soon realized, was just what I needed. I retired from the law and kept my eyes on Kevin, who showed up again in 2011′s Night on Fire. In Night, Kevin defends a beautiful but troubled young bride charged with slaying her groom on their wedding night—and in doing so, setting fire to a popular Hawaiian beach resort and killing an additional twelve people.
In 2012, Kevin Corvelli defended the Governor of Hawaii in a federal investigation into the death of the governor’s pregnant Russian mistress in Last Lawyer Standing.
These are the kinds of cases a lawyer—or lawyer protagonist—can really sink his teeth into. Maybe all that student loan debt I incurred wasn’t a complete waste after all.
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).
“Questioning is as instinctive for lawyers as lighting cigarettes is for smokers. And it’s just as nasty a habit.”
ONE MAN’S PARADISE (2010) by Douglas Corleone