Tag Archives: Presumed Innocent

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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Revolver

The Bullet PB

The Bullet: A Novel (Gallery Books, $16.00, 357 pages)

Caroline Cashion, an attractive middle-aged Georgetown professor, is happy in her solitude until she begins having pain in one of her hands. Medical tests reveal that she has a bullet lodged in her neck, near her brain. It turns out that she was adopted at the age of three, and that her parents were murdered at the same time she was shot. The bullet that hit Cashion failed to kill her because it passed through her mother’s body first. Shocked, Cashion is determined to find out what happened almost four decades ago and why.

Mary Louise Kelley’s second novel (Anonymous Sources) is quite engaging and told in true cinematic fashion. The story is based in the D.C.-area, with stops in Atlanta and Paris. I will guess that most readers will enjoy the read until about four-fifths of the way through the novel. And then it becomes problematic as Kelly has created a conclusion that’s a bit too clever – in the mode of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and far too unlikely to occur in the real world. Cashion herself complains in the story about “…novels with bleak endings that drove you to despair.” The ending here drove me to a place called Disappointment. It’s not a pleasant stop.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released in trade paperback form on December 8, 2015.

A Thriller

Note: The hardbound release of The Bullet was labeled as A Thriller. The trade paper version is listed as A Novel, which appears to be more accurate.

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This is the Day

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Delacorte Press, $26.00, 432 pages)

William Landay’s courtroom novel, Defending Jacob, is interesting and engaging, but is it – as per the hype – this year’s version of Presumed Innocent?   Sorry, but no, it’s not.   This is one of those novels that comes down to the fake ending, where there are usually one or two twists that the reader didn’t anticipate or see coming.   But, this time around, the reader has to deal with three feints and it all seems a bit much.   The author is a graduate of the Boston College of Law, and I presume that at some point he heard an instructor state that, “The game is not worth the candle.”   That’s a law professor’s way of saying that a lawyer’s or judge’s argument is far too clever to be convincing; which is precisely the way I felt about Defending Jacob.

This is a story about a Chief Assistant District Attorney who takes on a case involving the stabbing death of a 14-year-old student at his own son’s high school.   It turns out his son is the prime suspect and, before you can sing a song by the 80s band The The, he’s banished from the office.   The next thing he knows, he’s the second chair to a criminal defense attorney who’s defending his son on a charge of murder.

“After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.”

“…it was a little late in the day to be switching sides.   I was not sure I could bring myself to defend the same scumbags I had spent a lifetime locking up.”

What Landay does well – quite well – is to express in a firm and gruff voice his doubts (as a former prosecutor) about the workings of the American criminal justice system.   But his protagonist Andy Barber comes off sounding less like a lawyer and more like one of those grizzled former cops who becomes a hard-shoe Private Investigator.   There were times, in fact, when I felt the story – set in 2007 – turn from color to black and white.   It sometimes seemed that, except for references to personal computers, I was reading something set in the 1950s rather than in near-current times.

Defending Jacob has its moments, but a better read in this genre is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton, a taut courtroom drama that comes replete with “a surprise ending.”   That’s one surprise ending, not two or three.   Because when it comes to Scott Turow-style surprise endings, less is more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Sequels and Prequels

“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.”   Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books

One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases.   Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer.   Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.

The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with.   One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it.   Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD.   Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO).   Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.”   But what happens when Triple Whammy is released?   PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists.   (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)

An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character.   One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky.   Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels.   (Was V. I. getting soft?)   Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books.   Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!

So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character.   He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives.   Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?

There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough.   What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income?   What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles?   This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point.   That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.

The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating.   The key word, though, is skill.

Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel.   This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character.   In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…

Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones.   When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties.   If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural.   But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow.   The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this?   I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”

Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different.   Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version.   But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”

The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character.   But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love.   These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough.   One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon.   It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one!   But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks!   Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now.   Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”

A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant.   Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome!   Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This article is one in a continuing series.

Pictured:   Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.

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Faking It

False Convictions by Tim Green (Grand Central Publishing)

“Even in the suit, (Judge) Hubbard’s thick neck and big glasses gave him the air of a character actor playing a bit part on a low-budget cable movie.   Jesse Jackson kicked into gear with kisses, solemn hugs and jive handshakes.”

This reviewer was expecting something more substantial than what is found in Tim Green’s latest legal novel.   This is not a courtroom drama in the style of Scott Turow or an exciting part real, part fantasy, novel like those written by John Grisham.   No, instead it comes off as simultaneously low-budget and overdone.

The three main characters are stereotypes, none of them quite believable.   One is a young and brilliant shark of a lawyer, Casey Jordan, who, naturally, makes men melt at the sight of her in short skirts.   Another is a young male reporter who is God’s gift to women and knows that he’s more beautiful than Casey.   And lastly there’s the billionaire who can drop $2 million in a single afternoon in order to have Brad Pitt, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson join him at a press conference.   He also happens to move about in the fastest non-military airplane known to the world.

Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.   A highly attractive young white woman is raped and savagely murdered.   The law enforcement authorities decide to arrest a young black man for the crime, and he’s sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.   Only maybe he didn’t do it.

In order to rectify injustices like this our friendly billionaire establishes a project to give sight to the blinded Lady Justice.   He offers Casey, who is so incredibly successful that she’s already been the subject of a TV movie, a cool $1 million retainer to take on the defense of only two wrongly convicted persons.   The billionaire may be Batman but he needs lawyers like Casey to serve as Robin.

The typical reader is going to expect a lot of twists and turns before things are resolved and the wrongly convicted person is freed.   Except that everything falls into place too quickly and about sixty-five or seventy percent of the way through this novel, the innocent guy is freed while one Judge Hubbard hangs out with Al Gore, Brad and Jesse.   Wait a second, there are too many pages left for this to be the end, which means…

Yes, the old fly in the ointment event occurs and everything suddenly goes to heck in a hand basket.   The best laid plans of billionaires go awry.   The same goes for the plot of this novel.   It goes into overtime before the game has been played out.

If Green had stopped when all the loose ends were tied, he might have been credited with serving up a nice little novella.   But this one goes on a bit too long and, strangely enough, it’s hard to spot the author’s legal training in the telling.

The reader seeking a fun novella in this genre might like Denis Johnson’s campy Nobody Move, just released in trade paperback form.   Or novels like Try Fear or Try Darkness by the highly talented James Scott Bell.   And then there’s True Blue by David Baldacci.   All of these are rides in a fastback mid-engine Porsche compared to Green’s tale, which felt to this reviewer like a ride down the block on a Vespa.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from Grand Central Publishing.

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Almost Innocent

Innocent by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing)

No one writes better courtroom dramas than Scott Turow.   In Presumed Innocent, he told the story of chief Deputy District Attorney Rusty Sabich.   When Sabitch’s mid-western boss loses his election bid, Sabich – who is married – is charged with the murder of a former colleague-mistress.   His prosecutor is Tommy Molto, a lawyer who started in the office at the same time as Sabich.

With this novel published in 1987, Turow created a new genre, the crime novel with the shocking and surprising ending.   All of a sudden a number of novels ended with an unexpected twist and such endings came to be known as “Turow-style endings.”   One of the best examples of the application of Turow’s style was Tell No Lies by Julie Compton.

Now, after these many years, Turow has done something he said he would never do, which is to provide us with a sequel to Presumed Innocent.   Boomers are going to buy it by the millions no matter what the reviews might say.   As one avid reader said to this reviewer, “Everything Turow writes is going to be big.”

With Innocent, we reconnect with Rusty Sabich who is now a state appeals court judge seeking a seat on the state’s Supreme Court.   Things look promising for Sabich, except that his brilliant wife has been quite ill and he’s once again made the mistake of taking a mistress – one who is literally his lawyer son’s age.   When Sabich’s wife dies in bed, he stays with the body for 24 hours before contacting the police.   This is rather odd behavior for a judicial officer, and Tommy Molto – the man who unsuccessfully prosecuted Sabich earlier – now sees a chance for a re-match.

So, yes, this is a re-mix of the earlier story contained in Presumed Innocent.   The protagonist and the main characters remain the same, if only older (an aspect of the story that Boomers will latch onto).   No one, however, appears to be any the wiser.

As always with Turow, the courtroom scenes soar even if the rest of the telling is more down to earth.   Turow presents the criminal justice system as a gritty one where normal people are “caught in the thresher called justice.”   This is not your sanitized version of justice.   At one point a fellow prosecutor suggests a theory of Mrs. Sabich’s death to Molto and he shakes his head in disdain:  “It sounded like Law and Order.   A little too tidy.”

In real courtrooms, justice is not tidy, pretty or predictable.   If there is one thing that Mr. Turow should be credited with, it is with getting this message out.   The criminal justice system is staffed with dedicated and talented professionals, but often even they cannot see what’s coming around the next corner.   In Innocent, prosecutor Molto is doing a bang-up job examining Sabich until he makes a cardinal mistake, asking a question for which he does not know the answer.

Little more should be divulged about the plot except to say that the story is resolved before one arrives at the final page.   This will likely surprise some of Turow’s fans, but he has matured and has no need to make use of the literary device he invented.   Is Innocent just as good a read as Presumed Innocent?  

In the opinion of this reviewer, Innocent comes off as a four-fifths scale version of Presumed Innocent.   Which means it is nevertheless better than 95 or so percent of the courtroom dramas you can find out there.   See, no surprise here.

Highly recommended.

Innocent was released by Grand Central Publishing on May 4, 2010.   A review copy was provided by Grand Central/Hachette Book Group.

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