Washington Law & Politics Stranger Than Truth

Washington Law & Politics, June-July, 2007

Stranger Than Truth

By O. Casey Corr

Their court cases are riveting, but wait till you read local lawyer’s novels, inspired by real-life drama.

It’s a scene ripped from the pages of a legal thriller: the tough, tall, good-looking prosecutor making his closing argument in a murder trial. One look at the jury and you know he owns them as he dissects the defendant’s lies. He gives them the real story: the truth about who started the fight, who brought the gun, the truthfulness-or lack thereof-of a crack-smoking witness and, most important, the facts disclosed by wounds on the victim’s body.

“We’re going to spend 30 minutes on the defense, and when we’re done, there will be nothing left, because it’s all untrue,” says the prosecutor, and you believe him.

It could be a scene painted by a great novelist, say Scott Turow or John Grisham. Actually, it’s a real-life moment from a February trial with lawyer-novelist Mark Lindquist, chief of the drug unit at the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. (The verdict: guilty.) Nights and weekends-when he’s not working to put away bad guys-Lindquist writes novels, most famously Never Mind Nirvana, published in 2000, a tale of crime, booze and disaffection, set against the late 1990s Seattle grunge scene.

Lindquist takes his place on a long list of lawyers who have written novels, the likes of Louis Auchincloss, Richard North Patterson, Louis Begley and Erle Stanley Gardner. There’s an even longer list of lawyers who would but don’t have the time, the drive, the taste for solitary work, the ego to withstand rejection-or the talent.

Those who succeed often point to law as a good entry into novel writing: You learn how to gather facts, write reams and meet deadlines. Most often, lawyer novelists write mysteries and legal thrillers. There are at least a half-dozen lawyer-novelists in Washington state. Their day jobs, mostly in criminal law, introduce them to the essential ingredients of cops, crooks and corpses.

Lindquist, 48, has seen his share of crooks in Pierce County, an epicenter of methamphetamine production on the West Coast. Some of those cases inspired his new novel, The King of Methlehem, a tale of a lawyer-turned-detective who smokes pot after hours and is obsessed with catching a meth dealer.

After growing up in Seattle and starting his college career at the University of Washington, Lindquist moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California and try his hand at screenwriting. He worked on 12 scripts, some his own, but mostly as a “script doctor” on other people’s work. He lived a fairly comfortable life-many could only dream of living aboard a 46-foot Hatteras called “Go Dog Go” at Marina del Ray-but he returned home after getting “completely burned out on screenwriting,” to enroll at the University of Puget Sound School of Law (now Seattle University School of Law). Lindquist saw law as a means of paying the bills.

So he joined the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in 1995. It’s a job that some weeks consumes 70 hours, but Lindquist makes it a habit to write almost every night, writing scenes for a work in progress or keeping notes of stories or conversations that might be useful later. He approaches writing like a regular job, done day by day, but not always to a predictable end. Before The King of Methlehem, Lindquist struggled for two years with a novel he ultimately abandoned.

Lindquist is a celebrity. He’s been profiled in The Seattle TimesVanity Fair and DetailsPages magazine called him a member of a “literary brat pack” including Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and others. In 2000, People magazine called him one of the nation’s 100 most eligible bachelors. (Good publicity for book sales, he says.) Those glittery notices contrast with the grim work of prosecuting drug dealers at the Pierce County courthouse, where Lindquist is also highly regarded, says Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Gerry Horne. “It’s a tribute to him that he can find time to write novels, because he plays such a huge role as a team leader and trial attorney.”

Fast-track publishing

Milton “Sonny” Ghivizzani of Seattle may not represent the commercial success of novel writing, but he certainly illustrates the passion that sustains any writer. Ghivizzani took $37,000 he inherited from an aunt and self-published Employee of the Year (2005), a story of a defense lawyer drawn into the sordid background of a murder case. Now 70, Ghivizzani has retired from a career with the Public Defender Association in Seattle and works as a solo criminal defense practitioner when he’s not working on manuscripts. He saw self-publishing as a means to skip the search for an agent and publishing house and quickly establish his name as a writer, he says.

After Employee of the Year came out, Ghivizzani visited bookstores and crisscrossed the state to speak to readers groups. He once rented a booth at a small country fair along a highway near Yakima. It’s a person-to-person business. So far, he’s sold 1,000 of the 1,500 copies. The book can be found on Amazon.com and at Seattle-area bookstores. “I’ve worked my ass off,” he says. Much as he’d like to make money at his writing, he gets the most satisfaction from telling a story, seeing it in print, and hearing that someone enjoyed it. He’s working on a second novel involving the same main charactgers. “It’s a labor of love,” he says.

The “Canary” sings

Robert Dugoni had a successful practice with Gordon & Rees in San Francisco. He enjoyed civil litigation. But he woke up one day and decided he couldn’t do it anymore. The desire to write just wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t a completely random impulse for Dugoni, having majored in journalism at Stanford and done creative writing on the side. His wife agreed he could work full-time on novels, on one condition: they move back to her hometown, Seattle.

Dugoni, now 46, wrote full time for three years in a windowless 8-foot-by-8-foot office in Pioneer Square. He produced three novels, all rejected by publishers. But then, by chance, at a party he met an investigator with the Environmental Protection Agency who told him a tale of pollution and corruption in a small town in Idaho. That became the basis for a nonfiction book, The Cyanide Canary, co-authored with Joseph Hilldorfer, the investigator. The success led to interest in his unpublished work.  “I was a ten-year overnight success,” Dugoni jokes.

Dugoni hopes his latest book, Damage Control, will establish him as a full-time novelist. For now, the California-licensed attorney makes a living by working on a contract basis with Seattle law firm Schiffrin Olson Schlemlein & Hopkins and by teaching classes for the American College of Trial Lawyers, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, State Bar of Arizona, SEAK Inc. (expert-witness training) and University of Washington Extension programs. “The most enjoyable people I teach are lawyers,” he says. “They’re the most professional, polite, eager students.”

A career takes wings

Fredrick D. Huebner represented rural utilities in Oregon after the collapse of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS)-a case involving multi-billion dollar litigation that required him to spend time on airplanes flying between Seattle and New York. Idle hands became the novelist’s playthings.

Huebner, 51-at the time with Helsell Fetterman and now with Cable, Langenbach, Kinerk & Bauer-sat in coach and wrote in longhand. Eventually, a novel emerged, then another, then half of a third, all during the WPPSS litigation. The novels are based on the adventures of a character named Matt Riordan, a burned-out lawyer-turned-detective. Huebner’s latest creation is the 2001 book Shades of Justice, a tale involving a forensic psychiatrist called to help defend a woman accused of murder. Huebner never wants to make things easy for his characters. Easy means dull, he says. “You can’t fall in love with your characters,” he says. “If you do, they cease to be interesting. They always get the girl. They always solve the case.”

The listmaker

Any list of Washington state lawyer-novelists would have to include Bellingham’s Steve Martini, author of 10 consecutive books on the New York Times bestseller list.

Most novelists will tell you that self-promotion is a necessity. Even Grisham does The Today Show. Martini is the exception. He does some book appearances but rarely gives interviews. “I’d like to say I don’t worry about making the bestseller lists, but I do,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2003. “I’ve been fortunate to hit the list with every one of my books since the first one. So I feel a lot of pressure to have that continue.”

Martini spent 17 years in law, both in private practice and for public agencies, doing civil, criminal and administrative law, which he later called “the least eventful period of my life.” He started writing fiction in his early 40s. His first book, The Simeon Chamber  (1987), had spotty sales, just 5,000 copies. But for his second book, he invented a defense attorney character named Paul Madriani whose nickname might as well be “book sales.” Each Madriani book has sold 200,000 or more copies in hardback. Two other books, Undue Influence and The Judge, were made into TV miniseries. His latest, Double Tap (2005), tells a tale of assassins, government corruption and a high-tech millionaire.

From the heart

There is no whodunit to solve in books by John E. Keegan with Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle. Keegan, 64, doesn’t write mysteries or legal thrillers. His three novels explore relationships. His most recent book, A Good Divorce (2003), deals with a lawyer coping after his marriage ends.  Keegan, who specializes in real estate and land use, is now working simultaneously on two novels and a novella, writing in the mornings and on weekends, typically 12 to 15 hours a week.  His previous books each sold more than 5,000 copies. He says law is wonderful, but he gets something different from writing: a chance to look at “the landscape of the human heart.”

“I want to focus on the small things that are really important, how people behave when they get home,” he says. “They say, ‘Write about what you know.’ I’m interested in what you don’t know, what you don’t know the answers to. As a writer and a human being, you wonder, ‘What is my wife really trying to tell me?’ It’s wonderful to explore things. Maybe it’s my Jesuit Catholic upbringing-you’re always looking inside the soul.”

Or, if you’re Lindquist, you might be looking into the darkened soul of a meth dealer. Successful in two careers, Lindquist is not looking to give up on either. “I get obsessed about my work, whether it’s a book or a trial. A lot of writers and lawyers are obsessive people. To my mind, I have two of the greatest jobs in the world.”