Monday, June 11, 2018

Q&A with Paul Levine

Award-winning author Paul Levine joins us today to talk about his new book, Bum Deal, the third book in the series. Paul's books have been translated into 23 languages. Let's hear about the latest...

Please tell us a little about BUM DEAL.

Jake Lassiter, my old warrior of the courtroom, fights for justice – and his life – in his final adventure. The series began in 1990 with TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, my first novel, which thankfully is still in print. In BUM DEAL, Lassiter, a second-string linebacker turned criminal defense lawyer, finally switches teams. As the appointed special prosecutor in a high-profile murder case, he vows to take down a prominent surgeon accused of killing his wife. There’s just one problem…or maybe three: no evidence, no witness, and no body. Complicating Jake’s life is CTE, the lethal brain disease he may have contracted banging heads in the NFL. So, when I say this is Lassiter’s last trial...well, maybe it’s REALLY his last trial.

BUM DEAL and the novel preceding it, BUM LUCK, both touch on CTE. When did you start developing the idea to include this in your Jake Lassiter narrative? Also, how did you come up with such clever titles for this series?

A close friend of mine, a former football player and international rugby player, died of CTE a few years ago. It affected me deeply, and I decided to visit that horrific plague on my hero of a dozen novels. In BUM LUCK, Lassiter, who suffered multiple concussions playing football, begins showing symptoms of brain damage: confusion, irritability, memory lapses. In BUM DEAL, his medical condition worsens and he undergoes experimental treatments that are based on actual medical procedures. 

The likelihood that Lassiter has the disease, which is always fatal, changes his outlook on life. Perhaps that why he wants to seek justice – that illusory, shadowy concept – on the other side, i.e., the state. Now he prosecutes an accused murderer, instead of defending him.

As for titles – BUM RAP, BUM DEAL, BUM LUCK – I like their crispness. In the era when people search for books on their iPhones, it’s a lot easier to read a two-word title. I loved the book, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” but I’m not sure you could do that now.

For new readers, tell us a bit more about Jake, as well as his unlikely best friends, lawyers Victoria Lord and Steve Solomon. Where did these characters come from? Who are they?

I started writing “To Speak for the Dead” in 1988, when I was 40 and going through a mid-life
crisis. I was a partner in a large (1,000 lawyers) international law firm. My cases, primarily commercial litigation, bored me. Judges, clients, and partners irritated me. Instead of seeking therapy, I created Jake Lassiter, a guy who would punch out a witness who lied and happily be held into contempt to prove a point in court. “A lawyer who’s afraid of jail,” he says, “is like a surgeon who’s afraid of blood.” In other words, Lassiter would do things I would not. I found his conduct (and misconduct) oddly satisfying.

The recurring themes of the series are the precarious nature of justice and the difficulty (or impossibility) of achieving true justice. Lassiter has long approached the job of the criminal defense lawyer with a certain amount of cynicism. 

“A good lawyer is part con man, part priest—promising riches if you pay the fee, threatening hell if you don’t.  The rainmakers are the best paid and have coined a remarkably candid phrase: We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord stem from my love of the battle-of-the-sexes dramedy.  Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” books with squabbling detectives Nick and Nora Charles and of course, television’s “Moonlighting” with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis.

In “Solomon vs. Lord,” Steve Solomon, a street-smart graduate of Key West School of Law, teams up with Victoria Lord, a Chardonnay and pâté Ivy League grad. They defend a woman on charges she killed her filthy rich husband. It’s lighter, funnier than the Lassiter novels. Victoria plays by the book.  Steve burns the book. He has immense respect for justice but little respect for the law, which he sees as insensitive and inflexible and enforced by people who are vain and corrupt.  His own code:  "If the law doesn’t the law." And, “Choose a juror the way you choose a lover.  Someone who doesn’t expect perfection and overlooks your bullshit.” And, “Lie to your priest, your spouse, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.” 

Did you always plan for Jake to meet Steve and Victoria? How has the trio surprised you?

I thought Solomon and Lord would spice up the Lassiter series, and I think they have. 

Your previous experience as an athlete and a lawyer obviously informed your plots and the characters. Has your past experience as a screenwriter also informed your novels? How? Will you ever write another screenplay? Why or why not?

Writing for television (“JAG” and “First Monday”) sharpened my dialogue skills. Believe it or not, I’m writing a spec feature script set in 1930's Hollywood.

If Steve, Jake, and Victoria were actually real people, would you be friends with each of them (even Steve!)? Why or why not?  

What? They’re not real?  Seriously, I created these characters. They’re already my best friends!

What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your novels? 

I got away from perjurious witnesses, inept judges, and obstreperous opposing lawyers...except for ones I made up.

What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?  

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn. Slick combination of intricate plotting with smart writing. Really nice wordsmithery.

If you could be any character in a book, who would you be and why?

Sherlock Holmes, without the cocaine and morphine use. Doesn’t everyone want to be the smartest guy in the room?  

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