Author archive

The Running Man In The Suit

By Reece Hirsch

I'm going to opt to answer last week's question -- if I could no longer write the sort of books I write, what would I write instead?

I currently write what might be described as "running man in a suit" books, also known as legal thrillers.  You've seen the book jackets, which inevitably display the shadowy outline of a dude in a dark business suit, briefcase in hand, running.  If the guy is in so much danger, why doesn't he drop the briefcase?  I can't answer that question.

I suppose if I couldn't write legal thrillers, I'd still end up writing from my experiences as a partner in a law firm.  I'd write books in which the dude in the suit takes a breather and doesn't run so much.  I'd slow the pacing down a bit, show lawyers doing more of what they do in real life -- sitting behind desks and practicing law.  I know the drama isn't quite so heightened, but, believe me, it's still there.

In particular, I'm fascinated by the mega-lawsuits that some large law firms handle, the kind that go on for decades like the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Dickens' "Bleak House."  I can think of a few current and former colleagues who started working on a case as first-years fresh out of law school and, twenty or so years later, were still litigating the very same matter.  I find this phenomenon fascinating because over the course of a single, massively expensively, knock-down-drag-out litigation, the attorneys grow old and some die (unlike legal thrillers, by natural causes), the cultural landscape shifts, law firms rise and fall, and even the law itself is altered.  The combatants also change, as the corporations embroiled in the dispute cycle through several generations of management.  When there are hundreds of millions or billions of dollars at stake, corporations tend to fight to the bitter end, like dinosaurs tearing at each other until they disappear together into the tar pit.

I think there are a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities in that sort of mega-case because so many changes in the world at large end up getting refracted through the prism of the lawsuit.  Maybe one day I'll write that sort of book, but I don't think it would qualify as a legal thriller.  But if that book were to be written and published, I'm betting that it would still have that running man in the suit on its cover.

Note:  Despite my grousing, it should be noted that the cover of my novel The Insider actually did not feature the running man in the suit.  My publisher opted for the more tasteful "man in suit staring pensively out of office tower window" pictured above.

The Law of the Dog

By Reece Hirsch

Will Connelly, the ambitious young corporate attorney who is the protagonist of my legal thriller THE INSIDER, is not a pet owner.  He’s a lonely workaholic still recovering from a bad break-up when the book opens, and he could certainly use a little companionship.  However, Will spends far too much of his time billing hours at his law firm to have a dog.

However, to paraphrase the Dos Equis man, if Will Connelly were to have a dog, then it would be Simon, the furry little guy pictured above.  I can attest that Simon, a Brussels Gryphon and occasional Criminal Minds guest blogger, makes the perfect lawyer’s dog because he demonstrates so many of the characteristics of an attorney (at least the better ones).

Powers of Persuasion.  Whenever food is involved, Simon lays down, places his chin on you and delivers the sort of sorrowful gaze usually reserved for black velvet, sad-clown paintings.  Clarence Darrow was never this convincing.

Brains.  Simon is smart enough to ring a bell when he wants to go outside and he can distinguish between the sounds associated with every type of plastic bag and container in our kitchen based upon whether it holds something that he likes to eat.

Bluster.  Sometimes when your arguments are less persuasive, a little bluster is needed to win the day.  With his fearsome bark and dead-eyed gaze (see below), Simon has backed down a herd of cattle, a family of deer, and a flock of wild turkeys.  The raccoon that he encountered gave him pause – but Simon understands what every good lawyer knows – bluster will only get you so far with a potentially rabid adversary. 

I know that in a previous post I promised to never again pimp out my dog to promote my writing, but I can see now that I will revert to my prior bad habits when desperate.  So sue me.

Shelf Life

By Reece Hirsch

The most highly prized item on my bookshelf is a signed copy of the thirty-fifth anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I know I’m not going out on a limb by singing the praises of Lee and “Mockingbird”; a case could be made that it’s the most well-loved American novel of the last 60 years. And like any book that has embedded itself so deeply in our culture, it finds ways to speak to a wide variety of readers in a wide variety of ways.

I’m not going to spend time here talking about the book’s obvious strengths, such as the indelible characters of Scout, Dill and Boo, or the now-underrated role it played in changing hearts and minds when the battles of the civil rights movement were still being fought. Instead, I’m going to focus on why it occupies a special place on my particular bookshelf.

I love Harper Lee’s book in part because I grew up in the South, and I can’t think of any writer who has captured the drama and boredom of growing up in a small Southern town like Lee did. My childhood was spent in places like Tallahassee and Pensacola, Florida, Kannapolis and Jacksonville, North Carolina, Decatur, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. I wouldn’t say that any of them matched up precisely with Lee’s lightly fictionalized Maycomb, Alabama (a stand-in for Monroeville), but it’s a world that I got a glimpse of before it started disappearing.

Another reason why I love Lee’s book is that she nearly single-handedly redeemed the much-maligned legal profession with the character of Atticus Finch. In my small way, I didn’t help matters any by taking a few potshots at big law firms in my first novel “The Insider.” But for every Mickey Haller cutting deals out of the back of a Lincoln, there’s always Atticus. Sure, he’s an idealized figure, but he’s much more than a cardboard hero. The nobility in Atticus was drawn in part from real Southern lawyers of that era who took cases that nobody wanted them to take. And the conversations between single-parent Atticus and Scout are a model of tough-minded sensitivity.

Lee also fascinates, and scares the hell out of me, as a writer because she never published a second book after “Mockingbird.” Watching the excellent documentary “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’” I found it unnerving to see the assembled evidence of Lee’s writing career after the blockbuster success of her debut. She is quoted about the work she’s doing on the next book and how she enjoys the process of writing “perhaps even more than she should.” There are indications that she was conducting extensive research. Mark Childress cites a letter that he received from Lee that was full of the distinctive voice and wit found in “Mockingbird.” There was no question that Lee was a genuine and gifted writer with a distinctive voice. So why didn’t she write another book? If you have that kind of talent, how do you just take your chips down and walk away from the table? If you’re a true writer, how can you not write?

Perhaps she said what she had to say about her childhood and the South so well in “Mockingbird” that was there was nowhere to go with her second book. In the documentary, her sister recounts that Lee said that she felt she just couldn’t top “Mockingbird.” I hate to think that because most writers take their best shot with their first novel and write the things that they know the best and are most passionate about. It’s just that most writers aren’t as wildly successful at it as Lee.

Lee hasn’t become a recluse, but she certainly isn’t a public figure, either. The signed copy of “Mockingbird” that I own was one of those that she signed at an extremely rare book signing that she conducted in Monroeville in 1995 in celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary edition. I picked it up through eBay as a birthday present for my wife, and it is probably the favorite volume I have on my shelves.

This past weekend, I put the final touches on my second book, and it seemed like a good time to pay my respects to Lee because, for me, she’s a reminder to never underestimate the power of the blank page. No matter how my second book is regarded or what happens to it, I’m thankful that I’ve managed to fill those blank pages a second time, and I hope that I can do it again -- but I’m not about to take that for granted.

Remembering Walt

By Reece Hirsch

I’m going to go off-topic this week to say a few words about my father-in-law, Walton S. Taylor, who died on April 29 at age 91 and is being buried this week in New Iberia, Louisiana.  Known as “Dubs” or “W.S.” to his friends, he was a wonderful, big-hearted man, a Texas eccentric, and a tough guy who never felt the need to act tough.  I wouldn’t presume to sum up a life like his in a blog post, but I would like to note a few aspects of his remarkable story.

After a difficult childhood, Walt left home and struck out on his own to make a life for himself with virtually nothing at age 18, joining the Navy prior to World War II.   Two days before shipping out to serve in the Pacific, Walt married the love of his life and wife of nearly 67 years, Betty Betar Taylor, in Monterey, California.  They had met as students at Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, Louisiana.  He was 23, she was 19, and they had no idea if they would ever see each other again after the wedding.  For those of us who are not members of the Greatest Generation, this sort of high drama sounds like something out of a Greer Garson movie, but Walt and Betty didn’t make a big deal about it.  They knew their story was like so many others of that time.

During the war, Walt served in naval intelligence and civil-military relations.  Like my father, who fought at Guadalcanal, he never spoke much about the actual fighting, but I loved the story of how he came home from the Pacific.  He was on Okinawa and his unit was short on provisions.  The sailors that were on board the ships anchored off Okinawa were much better provisioned.  Walt figured out a way to correct that imbalance, hiring locals to produce some authentic-looking Japanese rising-sun battle flags (complete with handwritten inscriptions in Japanese) that commanded a high price in barter with the crews of the ships.   When the war was finally over and Walt was anxiously waiting for a plane home to see his wife again, he was able to use a case of whiskey acquired with one of those flags to secure a seat on a cargo plane heading back to the States, returning home in the company of generals.

After the war, Walt and Betty lived in New Orleans from 1946 to 1953, where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service.  He had an administrative post in the office of the local postmaster and distinguished himself by committing to memory every postal route in New Orleans.  His dedication was rewarded when he was appointed a U.S. postal inspector based in Tallahassee, Florida.

Walt served for over twenty years as a postal inspector covering the jurisdictions of Florida and south Georgia.  For those of you are not familiar with the job, postal inspectors are not mailmen -- they are the most unheralded badasses in U.S. law enforcement.  In those days, there were only a handful of postal inspectors and they handled federal criminal cases that included any and every crime involving the U.S. mail, from murders to kidnappings to extortion.  He carried a gun, collaborated with the FBI, and once worked undercover on an organized crime case.   My wife Kathy remembers that he never let her see the crime scene photos that he would sometimes review at home in private.

After retiring from the Postal Service, Walt worked for a few years as a Leon County Deputy Sheriff.  He supervised Ted Bundy’s custody when he was held at the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee, and spoke to him on several occasions, attempting to talk to him about the Bible.  The fact that Walt attempted to save even Ted Bundy’s soul tells you all that you need to know about the depth of his faith as a Christian.

Walt died suddenly of a heart attack, about five months after his beloved wife Betty.  He loved bad jokes, sang “Little Joe the Wrangler” to his toddlers, and intimidated the hell out of me when I first started dating his daughter.  He will be missed.

Gotta Have A Code

By Reece Hirsch

Which TV character’s loss do I mourn?    Well, there’s Jim Rockford, Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and the entire cast of “Northern Exposure.”  But I have to say that I’m still mourning the loss of Omar Little of “The Wire,” as portrayed by the great Michael K. Williams.

And so, partially due to an unusually hectic week and partially from sheer laziness, I’m going to reprise this tribute to Omar in verse that I posted here at Criminal Minds in January 2011:

The Ballad of Omar Little

This is the story of the outlaw Omar Little
The man, the legend, the poet, the riddle
He made his living robbing crack dealers wealthy
With a crew that was tough, well-armed and stealthy

In court, a lawyer accused Omar of exploiting the culture of drugs
Saying that robbing dealers still made him one of the thugs
Omar replied, "I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase, but we're the same
Two different players, but it's all in the game"

Omar loved Brandon and he didn't care who knew
Their love was tested, and turns out it was true
Brandon was captured and tortured by Barksdale's crew
They wanted Omar's hideout but Brandon refused

Stringer Bell's boys struck back at Omar
Taking a shot at him outside church from afar
They blasted away, but Omar did not go down
The only casualty was his mama's Sunday crown

But fair is fair and right is right
And even a fool knows not to involve Omar's mama in such a fight
If you come at the king, you best not miss
So Stringer moved to the top of Omar's most-wanted list

In dapper Brother Mouzon Omar found an unlikely ally
Mouzon quickly concurred that Stringer must die
Omar pumped his sawed-off shotgun and Mouzon drew a bead
And when the smoke cleared, all Omar said was, "Indeed"

But you can't wage war with everyone
If you hope to live many days in the Baltimore Sun
Like so many gunslingers before him who achieved renown
A kid trying to make a name shot Omar Little down

Omar played the game hard, but he played by his rules
He never robbed civilians like those other fools
And so, to Omar I dedicate this ode
Because, in the end, yo, man gotta have a code