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One Man’s Castle

This is an interview with J. Michael Major, author of the unique crime novel One Man’s Castle.  Joseph Arellano

1 man's castle major

In One Man’s Castle, you wrote a novel based upon a fascinating premise: A man kills people, but only criminals who break into his home.  How did you come up with this idea for the plotline?

It was a short story first.  Like most of my ideas, it was a combination of something I read or saw on the news combined with a “What if?” twist.  What could be another reason bodies are buried in a crawlspace?  And what is something personal that would make a person do this instead of calling the police? The characters stayed in my head even after the story was published, and several writer-friends encouraged me to expand it into a novel.

As I read Castle, I was sure that I knew exactly where the story was going.  I believed the story was going to conclude with an O.J. Simpson style trial.  But that’s not where the story went.  Did you have the ending planned out all along, or did the story just happen to take the path it did?

I’m glad I surprised you!  Yes, it was all pre-planned.  I am an outliner, even for short stories, and the core was already there.  After years of cut-cut for stories, the hard part was learning how to expand the idea without making it feel padded.  The novel gave me the freedom to show how Riehle and Capparelli initially met, get to know the backstory on Walter’s wife so the reader would care more, and explore Walter’s conflict in wanting justice for his wife’s murder without having to pay more of a price himself.

I describe the novel as “Death Wish meets The Fugitive,” and I had to figure out how to structure Castle to keep the tension and conflict while the reader was (hopefully) rooting for both Walter to get away and the police to catch him.  So, yes, I had to know where the story was going at all times.

Speaking of the end of the novel, I was reminded of Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and Defending Jacob by William Landy.  Were these legal novels influences on you?

Absolutely!  In fact, Presumed Innocent is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I am incredibly flattered that my novel reminded you of it.  Thanks!

Most criminal justice system related novels are written by lawyers.  How did you, as a dentist, decide to tackle a legal novel?

I saw it more as a crime novel with legal issues, which allowed me to focus on the definition of the crime and its consequences, rather than having to follow strict legal structure.  But mostly, it was just the story that I wanted to tell.  “Write what you want to read” rather than “Write what you know.”

What steps did you take to research the criminal justice system to ensure that your novel was reasonably accurate and representative of the justice system?

In addition to friends, relatives and patients who were police officers, I also talked with a couple of lawyers in the State’s Attorney’s Office and Attorney General’s office.  They not only answered my questions, but read early drafts of the novel and made helpful suggestions and corrections.  I am very grateful for their time and patience with me.

J. Michael Major

If you could press the reset button on your life is there something you would change?

Who wouldn’t want to go back and un-say/un-do some things, or do something you later regretted that you hadn’t?  But the truth is, I love my wife of 25+ years and I am so proud of the wonderful people that my son and daughter are, that I would not want to go back and jeopardize losing what I have with them.  Still, if I had to change anything, I would go back to when my children were younger and find a way to spend more time with them.  Though I was an involved father, they grew up so fast!  Where did the time go?

As with many legal novels, One Man’s Castle is in some sense a critique of the existing criminal justice system.  If you were made King of the Courts, is there something you would change about the system?

I would get rid of, or greatly reduce, the continued victimization of the victims.  While I understand the need for someone to be able to defend himself/herself against false accusations, the victims and their family and friends should not have to suffer through the torture and shaming they must endure during trials.  This seems like common sense and decency, but common sense and the law seem to follow non-intersecting paths these days.

Will your next novel be in the same vein?  Would you give us a preview of it in two or three sentences?

Sadly, when my publishing company decided that it was not going to publish mystery novels anymore, I had to scrap plans for sequels to Castle using the same detectives.  I wrote many short stories for a while, the most recent having been published in Weirdbook #34, until I got an idea for something different.  I just started writing the story of a rookie cop who descends into a hardened, shadowy vigilante over the course of three books.  I’m very excited about this project!

One final point, Carolyn Parkhurst stated, “The ending of a novel should feel inevitable.  You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming.”  I did not see the ending of One Man’s Castle coming, thus it passed her test.  Great job.  I certainly highly recommend the book.  Do you have any final comments?

First, thank you for this terrific interview.  Great questions!  I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book and greatly appreciate your recommending it.  Second, to all beginning writers, HANG IN THERE!  Life throws you curve balls, but as long as you keep writing and submitting your stories, you will persevere.  And read the screenwriting book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, because it will help you with structure and inspire you.  Good luck!

This interview was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/interview-j-michael-major-author-of-one-mans-castle/

It was also used by the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Interview-J-Michael-Major-Author-of-One-Man-s-11229481.php

 

 

 

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Law and Order

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Random House/Bantam, $16.00, 437 pages)

If you loved Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, read this.

defending jacob amazon

One of my favorite films is the Al Pacino classic And Justice for All, which might as well have been titled And Justice for No One.  In my time as a reviewer for Joseph’s Reviews, I have reviewed many crime/suspense/mystery/call them what you will novels, because many people enjoy reading these books.  Most, in my opinion, are average at best.  They appeal to a certain readership, and they get published.

The ones that distinguish themselves stand out for reasons that can sometimes be explained – for example, they actually tell a story, the reader cares about the characters, and they defy the formulaic conventions that permeate run-of-the-mill books.  Other times the reasons are more subtle.  A writer can just plain write – simple as that, and the book stands on its own, independent of any pre-conceived convention.  In those cases, things become a bit more subjective.

William Landay’s Defending Jacob succeeds on both accounts and is one heckuva book, period.  For people who enjoy the genre, it is an absolute must read.  Landy tells the story of Ben Rifkin’s murder in the first person, which is a brilliant decision.  This point of view adds to the suspense and human dilemma faced by the main character, Andy Barber, and his family.  A less skillful writer might not have pulled this off, but as it stands, the decision perfectly advances the story.  The reader suspends judgment and is pulled in multiple directions throughout the entire novel.

Barber is the town’s assistant district attorney and the initial investigator on the Rifkin case.  Ben is brutally stabbed in a park on his way to school.  Eventually, Andy’s son, Jacob, a socially awkward teen who was bullied by Ben, is accused of the murder.  This creates further complications, including politics in the D.A.’s office.  On top of that, Andy’s conscience may not be the most reliable barometer, as he has spent his life trying to bury the fact that his father is serving a life sentence for murder.  Is there such a thing as a murder gene, a propensity for violence?

Jacob’s internet proclivities and childhood indiscretions don’t help him.  But do they add up to murder?

In the end, a second incident and the preponderance of the evidence appears to lead to a certain direction, but the plot is so carefully constructed that empathy for the narrator still tempers judgment, and – like in And Justice for All, sometimes justice is not absolute.  Sometimes the criminal justice system is only as good as the flawed humans who are entrusted to administer it.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school system superintendent, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Note: Defending Jacob is used as a textbook in Criminal Justice  introductory classes at California State University, Sacramento as it provides insight into the complexities of the criminal justice system.

 

 

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Caveat Emptor

A Case of Redemption: A Novel by Adam Mitzner (Gallery Books, $26.00, 322 pages)

A Case of Redemption (nook book)

I generally have a problem with novels that deal with the law and the criminal justice system. That’s because they never feel quite “real” enough — meaning I can’t suspend my disbelief. This is a problem that was present in reading A Case of Redemption. I never felt like I had fallen into a fictional story; instead, my mind kept telling me, “You’re reading a legal novel written by someone following a plot outline.”

A primary issue with the story is that it sounds a great deal like the Paul Newman film, The Verdict. A lawyer faces tragedy and alcoholism and tries to re-start his life by taking on a big case. Here, it’s a criminal case rather than a civil one but as one of my relatives used to say, “Same difference.” Dan Sorenson was “a high powered New York City defense attorney…” until his wife and young daughter were killed by a drunk driver. Then the 43-year-old wreck of a man quits his practice and falls off of the planet into the bottle.

Ah, but soon he’s contacted by a young female lawyer, Nina Harrington — pretty much fresh out of law school — who convinces him to defend a rapper accused of a murder he insists he didn’t commit (but which he seems to have very accurately described in one of his compositions). What are the odds that Dan and Nina are going to get it on between the sheets? Oh, you see that coming, too?

Yes, much of what happens in this legal novel is predictable. Once you’re halfway through it, you may well be able to figure out who the bad guy is (no spoiler alert needed here). Unfortunately, it all concludes with an overly tricky ending that’s implausible. The conclusion reveals that the entire tale was a big red herring and you are likely to feel embarrassed about having spent so much time getting through it.

Since Mitzner is a practicing lawyer, there are a few realistic courtroom scenes, but they are highly structured. One never gets the “You never know what will happen next…” feeling that pervades true life courtrooms. So one’s time would be better spent reading a Scott Turow novel. Turow’s endings are tricky, but plausible.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Oh! Darling

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Penguin Books, $16.00, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital G.   It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small apartment in the Big Apple goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think:  Those are the offspring of killers.

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-armed, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The Darlings (paper)The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally trained spouse Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to its conclusion.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this powerful novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “Alger…  knows her way around twenty-first-century wealth and power…  a suspenseful, twisty story.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Everyday I Write the Book

“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.”   The New York Chronicle

“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news.   When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real.   I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter…  The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.

I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit.   Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star.   I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road.   Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life.   And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.

My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels.   I usually find fault from two different perspectives.   Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest.   The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.

The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair).   But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic.   If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark.   It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall.   Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”

The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard.   They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system.   There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires.   There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together.   Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers.   In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel.   It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.

I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.

What’s the moral of this article?   Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law.   Is there a writer who gets the characters right?   Yes, I’m glad you asked…  Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor.   Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books).   One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.

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1-2-3

Think of a Number: A Novel by John Verdon (Broadway, $14.00, 448 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the process of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at today’s criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he’s a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the tow, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial murder case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope left in their home; this envelope contains a piece of paper with the very number they thought of written down in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to the mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed on a page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s very ably assisted by Madeleine, the spouse who often sees the very things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his tricks with numbers, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict if twisted plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, luckily, will not even come close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style suspense thriller.   It’s easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and addictive story – especially so, as it’s a debut novel.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a large block of hours on your schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin to look forward to Mr. Verdon’s next satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A trade paperback version of Think of a Number was released on June 5, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download, and as an unabridged audiobook, read by George Newbern.

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A Hard Day’s Knight

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books, $14.99, 384 pages)

It may be a shame that Marcia Clark spent so many years as a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles.   I say this because she’s such a talented writer, as is made clear by this fun romp of a criminal justice novel.   Because the book’s protagonist, Rachel Knight, just happens to be a Deputy District Attorney (DDA) who works in the L. A. County Criminal Courts Building (the beloved CCB) one would guess that there’s a bit of Ms. Clark in the character.   Maybe, maybe not…  Rachel Knight may be slightly more daring than Clark was in her real professional life.

One surprise will be noted up front.   This is not a courtroom novel.   No scenes take place inside of a courtroom, so this is not a Scott Turow-style read.   Basically, this is the story of a prosecutor who decides to become a covert criminal investigator, off of the time sheets and without the knowledge or approval of her supervisors.   As Guilt by Association begins, Knight is celebrating a victory with fellow DDA Jake Pahlmeyer and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller.   It’s not long before Pahlmeyer is found dead downtown, in a very seedy hotel room with a 17-year-old boy; and there’s a nude photo of the boy in his suit jacket pocket.   Rachel’s supervisors very quickly instruct her to keep her “hands off” of the murder investigation involving her best friend in the criminal justice system.

Being a bit of a rogue, Knight brings Bailey into her effort to clear the late Pahlmeyer’s name in a city where scandals are less than a dime a dozen.   And as she does so, she also has to take over one of Jake’s cases – one that involves the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a very prominent physician.   Could the two cases somehow be related?   Maybe, maybe not…  You’ll have to read this criminal justice system mystery to find out and to learn the meaning of the rather intriguing title.

You never know what’s coming around the curve with this one…  Reading Guilt by Association is like taking a ride down the virtually mythical Mulholland Drive in a new Porsche Cayman S.

I would like to offer a bold or not-so-bold prediction for the future of this protagonist.   My money is on Rachel Knight’s getting fired from the D.A.’s office, and going on to become an embittered and newly licensed private investigator – one who uses every contact in her old address book to solve some of the county’s toughest and meanest crimes.   Not only will it make a series of great reads, but quite possibly a new hit TV show.   Rachel Knight, PI – it somehow sounds just right!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Guilt by Association was released as a trade paperback book on March 1, 2012.

“Clark’s pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come.”   David Baldacci

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