Tag Archives: defense attorneys

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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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Defensive Wounds: A Novel of Suspense by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 352 pages)

“Trying to find a smear of the dark red on the burgundy-patterned carpet made needles and haystacks seem like a bar bet.”

In this fourth time around in Cleveland, Ohio, author Lisa Black presents a convoluted present day mystery that is solved with one part forensics and one part feelings.   Author Black does an excellent job of setting up the story line and expanding her cast of characters.   While forensic scientist Theresa Mac Clean and her cop cousin Frank are easily recognizable from the prior novel in this series, Trail of Blood, their emotions and personal opinions are considerably more pronounced.   Ms. Black uses a plotline that consists of a series of seemingly unconnected murders to thoroughly explore the meaning of family loyalty.   Throughout the tale, each of the main characters – Theresa, Frank, and Theresa’s daughter Rachel – must choose which side they are on.   For Rachel the choice revolves around her feelings for a young man with whom she works at Cleveland’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.   Theresa has to balance her relationship with Rachel and her daughter’s safety with the demands of her job in the medical examiner’s office.

Aggressive defense attorneys are not usually mourned at their passing by local law enforcement officers and forensics specialists.   These public servants often face seemingly excessive interrogation on the stand as expert witnesses during trial proceedings in criminal matters.   When glamorous defense attorney Marie Corrigan is found trussed up and dead in the Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, not a single tear is shed or kind word uttered by the team summoned to the crime scene.   Ms. Corrigan’s reputation for winning acquittal verdicts for her questionable clients nearly matched her beauty and enviable figure.   “Ding dong the witch is dead,” was the vocal intoned by Leo DeCiccio in the trace evidence lab as the autopsy of Corrigan’s body began.

What better way to create a readily available pool of murder victims than to have them attend a seminar at said hotel that features the development of skills for achieving litigation success?   There is none better as far as this reviewer is concerned.   As each subsequent victim is discovered, the possibilities for a single murderer seem difficult to grasp, yet the methodology of killing is strikingly similar.   The past and present relationships of the murder victims and the investigators are not obvious.   Theresa and Frank must devote hours of sleuthing to fit the pieces together for the solution of the crimes.

Ms. Black’s wicked sense of humor provides several amusing sidebars for the reader.   Among the seminar lessons are the following:  “How to Make Not-Guilty Happen” and “Criminal Defense in a Down Economy.”   She gives her characters clever phrases and sets up the opportunities for them, such as,

“Two bodies piled up, and this woman knew both of them.   She may be able to connect the dots for us.   How much should we worry about people’s feelings?   Especially since they’re the same people who are going to say we didn’t solve these murders because we don’t like them?”

The take-away from this mystery novel is that we must all move on in life and it takes a bigger person to do so.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Defensive Wounds was released on September 27, 2010; it is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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Try Fear & Have Fun

Try FearI’m usually not a fan of crime novels.   Maybe it’s because I spent a decade visiting criminal courtrooms, about 35 of them in all, and got a feel for life in the justice field.   It’s a field that is tough, gritty, not TV-glamorous, filled with personality conflicts and with people who are amazingly talented (prosecutors, defense attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officers).   This is not the world I find in most crime novels which tend to divide between 50’s retro-breezy crime tales (like Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move) and stories in which you can predict every bend in the road to come.

Attend a real-life criminal trial sometime and try to predict what’s coming…   Good luck.

Then there’s author James Scott Bell who seems to get it.   In Bell’s world, “…(a witness) sits on a wooden bench outside the courtroom.   She looked like the rest of the multi-cultured family members scattered around the hall.   Tense.   Uncertain.   Half suspecting the wheels of justice to be more like the Jaws of Life – cutting, crushing, grinding.”   Bell should know as he worked for a major law firm in Los Angeles before working out of “an independent office.”   It’s the latter set of experiences he seems to call upon in taking us along on a fun and fast journey through the world of criminal justice in the City of the Angels.

Bell writes of L.A. as someone who has clearly loved it his entire life.   What seems to distress his characters the most is that the old L.A. appears to be gone; only Dodger Stadium seems to survive.   In one scene, the main character wants a good steak and so meets his date at Morton’s on Figueroa.   Perino’s?   The Brown Derby?   All gone.

Bell even turns negatives about the city into positives.   In his L.A., the smog creates strange but beautiful orange-hued dusks and purple night skies.

I should briefly set the stage for this story, the third in a series.   Criminal defense attorney Ty Buchanan, down on his luck and living like an orphan in a trailer, is asked to defend a young man accused of killing his own brother.   Once the story starts, it speeds along faster than a ride in a Ferrari down Sunset Boulevard.   You won’t be able to see what’s around the next turn, and during the pivotal criminal trial things don’t move forward logically (this is not Law and Order).

Making this story even more enjoyable is that Ty is a unique main character…   His conversations call to mind Bruce Willis in Moonlighting.   He’s funny but self-deprecating and seeks to help others to make up for some troubles in his past.   It seems that when Ty was working for one of L.A.’s finest law firms he managed to get himself accused of murder.   So long big law firm.

There’s also a love story here:  in fact, two very different women have entered Ty’s life.   One works for him (as a volunteer) and the other (a woman of some prosperity) seeks to work with him.   It’s doubtful that Ty will love either the way that he loves his city – it’s no accident that L.A.’s City Hall is pictured on the cover – but on the final page of this story he makes a unique commitment to one of them.

Do I think I can predict what will happen in the next chapter of Ty Buchanan’s life?   Absolutely not.   Do I want to read the next crime novel in the Ty Buchanan series?   Absolutely!

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