Tag Archives: prosecutors

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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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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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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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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A Thriller of a Giveaway

Harry Bosch is back, and this time it’s personal!

Thanks to Hachette Audio, we have two copies of The Reversal by Michael Connelly to give away in unabridged audio book form.   Yes, not one word has been cut from the story and it comes with a bonus.   The Reversal is read on 10 CDs by actor Peter Giles (who narrated Michael Connolly’s prior novel) and the bonus is a 2 CD set containing complete, uncut, copies of The Reversal and The Brass Verdict in MP3 format.   That’s right, this audio book box contains 12 CDs and has a retail value of $39.98!

Here is the official synopsis of this legal thriller from the mega-selling author Michael Connelly:

Longtime defense attorney Mickey Haller never thought he could be persuaded to cross the aisle and work for the prosecution.   Then convicted child killer Jason Jessup, imprisoned for twenty-four years, is granted a retrial based on new DNA evidence.   Haller is convinced Jessup is guilty, and he takes the case on the condition that he gets to choose his investigator, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, and his second chair, deputy DA Maggie McPherson.

But there’s a serious political taint on the case, and Haller and McPherson must face off against a celebrity defense attorney who has already started trying it in the media.   Borsch searches for the runaway eyewitness who was the key to Jessup’s original conviction, but that trail has long since gone cold.   Jessup, out on bail, grandstands for an eager press by day, but his nocturnal actions make Haller and Bosch fear the worst: this killer may have just gotten started.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer…  Reading this book is like watching a master craftsman build something that holds together exquisitely, form and function in perfect alignment.”   Bill Ott, Booklist.

So how can you win a copy of this audio book with the bonus MP3 discs?   It’s simple, just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address, or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell us what you’d like Santa to bring you for Christmas this year (We will keep it a secret, OK?).  

You have until Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at Midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.   In order to be eligible to receive the audio book box, you must live in the continental United States and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to P. O. boxes or to business-related addresses.   And, as always, Munchy the cat reserves the right to change the contest rules – including the closing date – at any time.   So check back periodically at this site or risk getting your entry/entries in too late.  

This is it for the complex rules.   Be careful out there; good luck and good reading!  

 

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Iced Revenge

Revenge Served Cold by Jackie Fullerton (Thomas House Publishing)

Kathy Spence awakens in the middle of the night and finds herself in a living nightmare…

This is author Jackie Fullerton’s second Anne Marshall mystery novel.   Anne is a court stenographer attending law school when she’s not working at her day job.   She also has a very special secret.   Her father passed away two years prior to this story.   Mr. Marshall visits Anne in the form of a ghostly spirit, complete with pipe smoke that alerts her to his impending appearance.   He assisted her in solving a murder during the past year.

This time Anne gets herself, the law school study group and a wide circle of friends involved when a professor from the school is run down and killed by a late-model white Cadillac.   And the car just happens to belong to Kathy Spence, the professor’s wife who has a drinking problem and persistent depression.

Ms. Fullerton makes good use of the background that she acquired when the youngest of her five children went off to school.   She fills the plot with a full array of characters.   There are several very nice couples in the mix with whom Anne and her fiance Jason, a young deputy district attorney, spend time and socialize.   Anne is a kind, caring heroine who has a stubborn streak that everyone can see.   She has lived in the same small town all her life and it is a place that’s not immune to the sinister plotting of outsiders.

The story begins a bit slowly and this reviewer was initially skeptical about the promise of an action-packed mystery given the characters introduced early on in the plotline.   There was no need to doubt the potential for action.   As soon as the bad guys came on the scene, thing began to quickly heat up.   (The ice melted.)   By the end of the book, my full attention was riveted on each page.

This is an excellent summer paperback read with just enough drama and peril to keep a reader on the edge of his or her beach chair.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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