Category Archives: Paul Levine

Foreman Says These Jobs Are Going, Boys, and They Ain’t Coming Back*

If you’ve ever been fired, you know how awful an experience that is. Even if you’re made redundant because of cutbacks (and not, say, job performance), it hurts. A lot. And a wise employer doesn’t fire someone on a whim. It’s a very serious step to take.

Being fired/terminated/separated is very hard, but it is a part of life. So, it makes sense that we’d see it in crime fiction, too. It can be the basis for tension and conflict, or it can be a plot point. It can also add a layer of character development.

For instance, in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to architect Stephen Booker. When he is made redundant, it’s a real blow for him and his wife. He likes his profession; so, at first, he tries to get another job in the field. He isn’t successful, though, and as time goes by, he begins to feel more and more desperate. Finally, he takes a job driving cab at night, thinking he can still use the days to look for a new position. One night, he meets professional thief Mike Daniels. Before long, Daniels becomes one of Booker’s regular fares and they get to know each other. When Daniels finds out that Booker is an architect, he decides to let him in on a secret. Daniels and his team have been planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. The bank is, of course, carefully guarded, so the team needs to find a way to work around the security. For that, they need an architect, and Daniels thinks he’s found his man. It takes some persuading, because Booker is basically a law-abiding person. But he’s also desperate for a job – any job – and falls in with the group’s plans. Everything goes along well, until a sudden rainstorm comes up and changes everything.

In the ‘Emma Lathen’ team’s Murder to Go, a big merger is in the works. Southeast Insurance is planning a merger with an up-and-coming fast food company called Chicken Tonight. The Sloan Guaranty Bank is involved in the merger, so it’s got an interest in making sure everything goes smoothly. But it doesn’t. Several people are sickened by one of Chicken Tonight’s new recipes. One of them even dies. This puts the merger in grave doubt and raises all sorts of questions about Chicken Tonight. So, the company wants to find out right away how the poisonings happened and do ‘damage control.’ At first, it looks very much as though the culprit is a man named Clyde Sweeney. He is a former delivery driver for the company, and he had access to the spices and food. What’s more, he had been fired recently and was bitter and angry about it. That certainly gives him motive to sabotage the company. It doesn’t help Sweeney’s case that he’s gone missing. But when he turns up dead, it’s clear that something more is going on. Sloan Vice President John Putnam Thatcher gets involved in the case and starts asking questions. He finds that the solution lies in behind-the-scenes greed and manipulation.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed begins just after bank manager Martin Carter is made redundant. With his marriage falling apart, and now no job to provide stability, Carter hasn’t got much to lose. On his last day of work, he can’t resist the lure of a million-dollar payroll and takes the money. He makes his escape in a police-issue 4WD and is soon on his way. But that act of desperation is only the start of Carter’s adventures. Along the way, he meets a New Age bike gang, a librarian who’s get her own secrets and past, and plenty of other characters as well.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife, Rosie, own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of Saskatchewan. They live in the small town of Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone else. And one of those people is Nick Taylor, head greenskeeper for the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. One day, Taylor is fired from his job. He’s devastated and furious, especially since he sees no specific reason for being let go. He blames Board member Harvey Kristoff, who has never liked him and has been looking for a reason to get rid of him. Later that day, Kristoff’s body is discovered on the green near the golf course’s seventh hole. Taylor is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he admits that he was very angry about being terminated. But he says that he’s not guilty of the murder. Taylor’s lawyer asks Bart’s help in clearing his client’s name, and Bart is happy to oblige, as he and Taylor are long-time friends. When the killer finds out that Bart’s asking questions, this spells danger for the Bartowski family. But Bart feels a strong obligation to an old friend, so he persists. And, in the end, he finds out the truth.

And then there’s Paul Levine’s Solomon vs Lord, which introduces his protagonists, Miami lawyers Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. As the novel begins, they’re on opposite sides of a case involving illegal smuggling of animals. Solomon’s defending; Lord’s prosecuting. They can’t stop scrapping with each other and bickering, though, which annoys the judge so much that they’re held on charges of contempt of court. When they’re finally released, they go back to the case, which is soon decided. The whole incident does nothing for Lord’s reputation, and she is summarily fired, publicly and in a humiliating way. It’s very upsetting for her, of course, and even Solomon feels compassion for her. Besides, as Solomon sees it, she may be a rookie, but Lord is a good lawyer who will develop into a truly great lawyer. So, he invites her to work with him in a new case he’s trying to get. Katrina Barksdale has been accused of killing her extremely wealthy husband, Charles. She claims she’s innocent, and Solomon knows that if he gets the case and wins it, there’s a large fee in it for him. He needs Lord’s ‘blueblood’ connections and her skills; she needs a job. So, they start working on the case together. And it turns out this case is more complicated then just a wife who kills to get her husband’s fortune.

Losing a job is hard, often painful, and always disruptive. It can have all sorts of consequences, too. So, it makes sense that this plot point would show up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown.

13 Comments

Filed under Emma Lathen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Nelson Brunanski, Paul Levine, Robert Pollock

In The Spotlight: Paul Levine’s Solomon vs Lord

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Legal cases are as varied as the people involved in them. So are crime novels that feature lawyers. And there aren’t too lawyers much more different than Paul Levine’s Miami-based Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. Let’s take a look at how different lawyers go about their work, and turn today’s spotlight on Solomon v Lord, the first of Levine’s Solomon and Lord series.

As the story begins, Solomon and Lord are in holding cells on charges of contempt of court. They’re on opposite sides of a case (Lord’s prosecuting, Solomon’s defending), and have made the mistake of annoying the judge with their arguing and bickering. When they’re finally released, they finish their arguments and the case is decided.

They dislike each other right away. To Solomon, Lord is far too ‘by the book.’ She’s rigid, narrow, and has no sense at all of humour. To Lord, Solomon is not much above a sleazy ambulance-chaser. He flouts the law and engages in courtroom antics to get his point across. They come from very different backgrounds, too. Solomon doesn’t have a lot of money, he didn’t go to an Ivy League law school, and so on. Lord, on the other hand, has ‘blueblood’ lineage and went to Yale Law School. In fact, she’s engaged to marry wealthy Bruce Bixby and work for his land development firm – corporate rather than trial law.

But these two lawyers soon end up working on the same side. Wealthy Charles Barksdale has died in what could be an accident but might not be. It seems he was involved in some very kinky sex when he suddenly died of asphyxiation. His much-younger wife, Katrina, is suspected of killing him, and in fact, is arrested. Solomon feels that if he can get that case and defend Katrina Barksdale, he can make his name (and get quite a good fee). For that, though, he needs connections, since the Barksdales move in very high circles. It turns out that Lord belongs to the same country club as Katrina Barksdale, so Solomon finds a creative way to wangle an introduction and the case. The proviso is that Solomon and Lord will work together.

In the meantime, Solomon has another, major problem. He’s been raising his eleven-year-old nephew, Bobby, since rescuing the boy from an abusive situation. What makes it all worse is that the abusive parent is Solomon’s sister, Janice. What’s more, Bobby has special needs, and suffered real trauma. So, it’s taken a long time for the two to trust each other. Now, Jack Zinkavich of the Division of Family Services is threatening to do what is necessary to make Bobby a ward of the state and put him in an institution. This, Solomon knows, would harm the boy. Besides, he loves Bobby and wants to take care of him.

Solomon hopes that if he wins the Barksdale case, he’ll be in a better position to be named as Bobby’s guardian. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that the two cases are tied together in another way, too. So, with so much at stake, Solomon and Lord work together to defend Katrina Barksdale and to ensure that Bobby will have a permanent home with his uncle.

This is in many ways a legal novel. So, readers follow along as Solomon and Lord plot strategy, work through the various steps of preparing for a trial, and so on. There are judges, courthouse meetings, meetings with their client and witnesses, and so on.

The novel is also the story of very different legal styles. Solomon has a strong sense of people (he sometimes calls himself the human polygraph). He doesn’t do a lot of preparation, and sometimes stretches the law. For him, the law is less important than the human beings involved in a given situation. He’s smart, shrewd, and is willing to try all sorts of unorthodox things if they’ll help his case. Lord, on the other hand, does a lot of legal research, makes copious notes, and prepares at length. She’s also one of the best rookie lawyers there is. Together, they make a formidable team, despite their differences.

The story takes place in the Miami/Dade County area of Florida, and that’s very clear. In terms of daily life, culture, weather, and more, this is a distinctly ‘Florida’ story. And it’s interesting to see the way the setting impacts the case and the story.

Another important element in the story is the set of characters. Some of the characters are eccentric, even a little strange. All of them are more than they seem on the surface. The story is told from both Solomon’s and Lord’s perspectives (third person, past tense). So we especially get to know their characters. Solomon can be immature, short-tempered, and even conceited. But he’s courageous, utterly devoted to Bobby, and determined that those who most need it get justice. Lord can be aloof, even seeming cold. She hasn’t learned to use her gut instincts, and she’s much more fixed on the letter than on the spirit of the law. But she’s brave, sharp-witted, and resilient. And she has more of a compassionate side than most people think.

It’s also worth noting that the novel features a set of ‘Solomon’s Laws,’ rules by which Solomon lives. They also give insight into his character. Two of them, for instance, are:
 

When the Law Doesn’t Work…Work the Law.

I Will never Compromise My Ideals to Achieve Someone Else’s Definition of Success.
 

The story has plenty of wit, as Solomon is good at wisecracks. There are also some funny scenes. But it’s not a light, ‘happy’ sort of a story. And it’s not all a cosy novel. There’s plenty of foul language, references to sex, and some violence (although the violence isn’t really brutal).

Solomon vs Lord introduces two very different, but equally skilled, lawyers. It takes place in a distinctly Florida setting, and features two cases that aren’t what they seem on the surface. Oh, and for those who might be interested (by whom I especially mean Moira at Clothes in Books), there’s a lot of interesting detail about clothes. But what’s your view? Have you read Solomon vs Lord? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 19 March/Tuesday, 20 March – Birth Marks – Sarah Dunant

Monday, 26 March/Tuesday, 27 March –  Koreatown Blues – Mark Rogers

Monday, 2 April/Tuesday, 3 April – The Salaryman’s Wife – Sujata Massey

20 Comments

Filed under Paul Levine, Solomon vs Lord

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

28 Comments

Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett

I’m Back to Livin’ Floridays*

FloridaAh, Florida – the ‘Sunshine State.’ Home of beautiful beaches, fresh citrus, delicious food, great nightlife, and Disney World. Florida attracts millions of tourists from all over the world, and with good reason. You’d think it would be an idyllic spot, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong.

There’s certainly real-life crime in Florida, and there’s plenty of fictional crime, too. From Pensacola to Key West, there are all sorts of fictional dirty doings in this southeasternmost state of the US.

One of the best-known series set in Florida is, of course, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Fans of this series will know that McGee lives on a boat he’s named The Busted Flush. He won the boat in a card game (hence the name), and is content to live there. The boat is moored at Lauderdale, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but McGee does travel at times. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ by which he means that he helps his clients recover property that’s been taken from them. His fee is steep: half of the value of the property. But his clients know that they have few other options, and would rather have half than nothing. In The Lonely Silver Rain, for instance, McGee is hired to find a wealthy friend’s yacht. He tracks it down, but when he goes aboard, he makes the gruesome discovery of several bodies. That discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s ‘cocaine wars’ (the book was written in 1985). And it serves as a reminder of Florida’s history as a hub for drug smuggling and trafficking.

Slightly further south, Miami is the home of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon/Victoria Lord series. Victoria Lord is a former prosecuting attorney from a privileged background. She prefers to do things ‘by the book.’ In Solomon vs Lord, the first of this series, Lord is fired from the job she’s had at the Florida state’s attorney’s office. She switches sides, as the saying goes, when defending counsel Steve Solomon hires her. In many ways, he’s her opposite. Where Lord prefers to play by the rules, Solomon’s view is, ‘when the law doesn’t work, work the law.’ Her law degree is from Yale; his is (barely) from the Key West School of Law. In this first novel, the two clash when they defend Katrinia Barksdale against the charge of murder. She’s been accused of killing her wealthy husband Charles, so there’s all sorts of money, sex and other juicy gossip to keep the local media in a frenzy.

Dave Barry’s Big Trouble also takes place in Miami. That novel features Arthur Herk, vice-president for a very corrupt local corporation, his wife, Anna, and daughter Jenny. When the boy next door, Matt Arnold, sneaks into the Herk home one night, his only goal is to use a squirt gun and best Jenny in an ongoing game of ‘killer.’ But Anna and Jenny think at first that he’s a real burglar and try to attack him. As if that’s not enough, Arthur tries to get involved, and ends up narrowly avoiding being killed by two hit men who’ve also snuck onto the property. Before they know it, the Herks, the Arnolds, the police, and a vagabond who lives in a tree on the Herk property are all caught in the crossfire, as the saying goes, and intertwined with an illegal arms trafficking scheme.

As you can see, South Florida isn’t exactly a safe place. What about Central Florida and the Everglades? Not so fast. Carl Hiaasen’s work shows just how unsafe it can be there. In Lucky You, for instance, features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do a story on JoLayne Lucks, who’s just won $US114 million. She wants to use the money to buy and preserve a piece of land in Florida. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals the ticket, with the idea of using the money to fund a militia. Before Krone knows it, he’s drawn into a complicated plan to get the ticket back. But neither he nor JoLayne has counted on the group of ruthless land developers who will do anything to keep the land free for development. Hiaasen’s done other novels, too, that feature the Florida landscape, and the ongoing debate over ecology and land preservation vs economic considerations and the tourist trade.

Howard Rigsby’s short story Dead Man’s Story shows that it’s no safer to live in the Florida Panhandle than it is anywhere else. Joe Root is a Florida game warden who knows,
 

‘..every swampy piece and piney stretch and bayou from Port St. Joe to Pensacola.’
 

One night, he comes upon a group of game poachers and confronts them. They try to first bribe him, then threaten him. He responds to neither approach and refuses to back down. The poachers think they’ve solved their problem when they kill Root. But they haven’t reckoned with Joe Root. He has his own way of bringing these killers to justice.

I don’t think a discussion of Florida crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elmore Leonard. Many of his stories, including Maximum Bob, take place in Florida. In that novel, Florida Department of Corrections Officer Kathy Diaz Baker is starting her own life again after ending a disastrous marriage. She no sooner gets settled than she begins to get some very unwelcome attention from Judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gates. Gates isn’t a particularly nice person, especially if you ask the many people he put behind bars (he got his nickname because of his fondness for issuing the longest sentences the law allows). Baker is not fond of Gates, but she can’t ignore it when she learns that one of her parolees may be trying to kill the judge. But it turns out the judge has plans of his own. He’s sick of his New-Age wife, Leanne, and plans to get rid of her by frightening her to death with a dead alligator. Of course, this being an Elmore Leonard novel, things don’t go the way any one of these characters plan…

As I say, Florida is a beautiful place with a lot to offer. Those beaches, that food and drink, that climate, well, it’s all enough to entice anyone. But do be careful…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Buffett’s Floridays.

45 Comments

Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, Howard Rigsby, John D. MacDonald, Paul Levine, Uncategorized