Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

by J.D. Rhoades

And you may ask yourself, “Well….how did I get here?” 

-Talking Heads 

One of the blogs I
check out on a regular basis is the one belonging to the wonderfully named
Sparkle Hayter. (Yes, she says it’s her real name, and it’s one of my favorite
names ever). Sparkle wrote a funny, sexy, and smart mystery series featuring
intrepid All News Network reporter Robin Hudson: WHAT’S A GIRL GOTTA DO?; NICE
favorite, THE LAST MANLY MAN. I first encountered Sparkle when we both hung out
in the internet newsgroup rec.arts.mystery. She was kind enough to name a
character in her werewolf novel NAKED BRUNCH after Yours Truly. Okay, the
character was long dead before the book even started, but still.

  Sparkle’s been a stand-up comedian, a cable
news reporter, a writer, an artist, and generally a really cool person, so when
I found she had a blog called Moons of Saturn, I subscribed immediately. That’s
where I got hooked on one of her loves:  Indian pop music, particularly Bollywood
soundtracks. You may think the whole musical movie thing is cheesy, but I defy
you to listen to something like Chaiya Chaiya 
for more than thirty seconds without beginning to involuntarily dance in
your chair.

   So I
click through a few weeks ago and find that the blog name’s changed. It’s now
called Bombay Talkies, because Sparkle’s got a brand new bag: as a writer on
the subject of Indian cinema, living in the city of Maharashtra. Kind of a strange place for a girl from Canada,
but as Sparkle says in her profile, “Life is strange and full of lots of twists
and turns. Roll with it, when you can.”

brings me, at long last, to my point. We don’t always end up at the destination we set out for. When I went to college, my major was what at that time was called RTVMP:
Radio, TV, and Motion Pictures. I wanted to be a filmmaker. That is, when I
wasn’t trying to be Hunter S. Thompson. “Hey,” I thought, “How hard can it be?”

Unfortunately, I
discovered two things: first, being a filmmaker meant spending a lot of time
trying to scare up financing, which I loathed; and second, that to be Hunter S.
Thompson, it wasn’t enough to stay loaded and wild most of the time, you
actually had to write something.

neither of those dreams panned out. I ended up working in local TV, behind the
camera, working on shows like a locally produced kid’s show called “Frog
(which featured a puppet named, I swear, Androgeena),  and an outdoor show called “The Southern
,” which was a half hour show consisting of two segments: (1) Host
hunts and kills something, and (2) Host shows you how to cook it.

Only problem with
that job was, it didn’t pay squat. So I ended up scuffling around in a variety
of media related positions, including club DJ’ing and ad sales for a country
radio station so low on the totem pole that they didn’t even register on the
Arbitron ratings. Then I started dating this really cute law student. 

Now, if there’s a
book lying out, I’ll pick it up and start to read. And when I picked up a book
on Constitutional law that the really cute law student left lying around, I was mesmerized.

  See, most law school texts present the
principles of law in a series of written cases–records of court decisions. And every case
starts with a recitation of the facts. In other words, every case tells a story. And
when you’re reading Constitutional or Criminal Law, fairly often it’s a case of
injustice, of some poor bastard getting worked over by the system. Miranda vs. Arizona? Poor
dumb bastard didn’t even know his rights, so how could he get a fair trial? Gideon vs. Wainwright?  Poor bastard got
screwed because he didn’t have a lawyer. And so on. Those stories, more than
the legal analysis of the facts that followed, were what made me think that
this whole lawyer thing might not be so bad. Plus, and this was no small
factor, I discovered that people would lend me money to go to law school and I
wouldn’t have to pay it back till I got out. “Hey,” I thought, “How hard can it

Next thing I
knew, I was in law school.

    Fast forward a few years. I married the really
cute law student, who quickly decided that the practice of law wasn’t for her.
I’d hung in there, but it was finally beginning to dawn on me, after a
disastrous stint with one of those personal-injury law firms that advertise on
late night TV, that I wasn’t loving it either. I moved back to my home town, but law practice still got on my nerves. An editorial I saw in my  local
newspaper tripped a switch in my head. I wrote a letter to the editor asking
“Mr. Editor, what color is the sky on your planet?” Another editorial sparked
another similarly snarky letter. So the editor in question , a classic old-time
newspaper guy named Brent Hackney, rang me up and asked if I wanted to do a
regular column. “Hey,” I thought, “How hard can it be?” Next thing I knew, I
was writing a weekly column. The answer to my question, of course, was the same as always: “a lot
damn harder than it looks.”

After a couple of
years of this, Brent said to me, “You know, you’re a pretty good writer. You
ought to write a novel.” I thought about it. “Hey,” I thought, "How hard….”
Well, you know the rest. Call me a slow learner.

I wrote a novel.
It sank like a stone. I wrote another.
It got picked up, along with another I hadn’t even written yet. I started
meeting people who wanted me to come and talk to them about my books. I wrote a
third novel, then a fourth. And here I am. It ain’t India,
but it’s sure not where I expected to be.

So, writers and readers: what destination did you start out for? What strange
places have you ended up along the way? And how did you get here?


  by J.D. Rhoades

Well, I had a fun
and  funny column planned for today, with
my usual wit and jollity. But I find myself unable to write anything like that
right now.

This past Friday
morning, Emily Elizabeth Haddock was home alone, sick with a case
of strep throat. Three young men, not realizing that there was someone in the
house, broke into the mobile home where
she lived.  Apparently, when Emily
surprised them, one of them shot her to death with a stolen .22 caliber pistol. Emily’s
grandfather found her body on the floor when he stopped by the house to check
on her and saw the door forced open.

Emily Haddock was
12 years old. She went to my daughter’s school. She lived on  the same road as one of my daughter’s close friends.

The three charged
in the murder were apprehended and jailed Monday night. They’re 16, 18, and 19
years old. They’re being held without bond and  two are most likely looking at the death
penalty. The time and place of their next bond hearing is being kept secret
because of “security reasons.”

  The news vans are all over the courthouse
square, and the reporters are all there, with names like Sloane and Greg and with
their perfect hair perfectly  in place,
droning away with that look of fake concern on their faces, and I’m sorry, but  I
just want to punch them. They were outside the Sheriff’s office as they were
taking one of the defendants to the jail, and they were asking “why did you do
it?” I mean, do they really expect an answer? Is there one?

  Where do you begin to process something like
this? How do I make sense of the utter stupidity and futility of it all when
someone who’s nearly the same age as my son is involved in the killing of a
bright, happy, pretty girl who’s only a
little younger than  my daughter ?

I’m sure there will
be those who see this as an indictment of the availability of guns, even though
the gun wasn’t bought from a dealer, it was stolen in another B & E. Comments are already
up on the news stations’ websites blaming  the parents for leaving the girl alone, even
though we really know nothing about the economic circumstances that might have led  to that.
At some point, since the accused are black and the victim was white, the race
issue is sure to raise its ugly head. The pontificating and chest beating has
just begun, and the whole prospect just makes me sick. These people, victims
and perpetrators, aren’t symbols or symptoms. They’re a sweet, sunny-natured
little girl and a trio of young dimwits  like
the ones I see every day. Except now one of them’s dead, and at least one of
the three others are probably going to be dead in a few years  at the hands of the State. Because if someone
dies while you’re committing a felony like B & E, it’s first degree murder, baby.  Class A,  top of the sentencing charts, even if you didn’t
plan the death. Unless you’re under 17, in which case you’re "only" looking at life
without parole. At age 16.

   As crime writers,
I think we sometimes lose sight of  what murder’s
really like. Most often, it’s not a puzzle for the brilliant detective to
solve. It’s not the plot device that causes  the plucky heroine and her true love to get together so they can be happy and just too cute for words  forever.  It’s
not the dangling  thread  of a giant tapestry  of international conspiracy to be unraveled.

More often than
not, a murder is just a  stupid and
pointless fuckup by someone who didn’t start the day out thinking “I’m gonna
kill me someone today,” but who started  that day with one bad choice that cascaded
inevitably into another, then another,  like a snowflake that turns into a snowball
that turns into an avalanche. In this case, the avalanche leaves an innocent girl dead
and not just one, but four families devastated.

I’ve been looking
at the words above for the last fifteen minutes, trying to draw some conclusion
from all this, some point. And I can’t find one. But maybe that is the point. This
story’s not going to have a happy ending, or a moral, or  a compelling or even a coherent plot.
It’s just some really shitty stuff that happened this past weekend. All I can
do to try and make sense of it is to write about it.

And it’s not enough.

I’m sorry.

All That You Dream

by J.D. Rhoades

All, all that you
Comes through shining,
silver lining

-Little Feat 

This past weekend,
some friends of mine came to town. The local library hosted a “Women of Mystery”
panel featuring my old friend (and early inspiration) Katy Munger, along with Sarah
, Diane Chamberlain, Brynn Bonner, and Murderati’s own Alexandra
  They were all doing a stint as
Writers in Residence at local arts retreat The Weymouth Center. I had met
everyone but Brynn before, and it was great to make her acquaintance, as well
as touch base with the folks I already knew. The big news is that we can expect
to see some long awaited new work from Katy soon. Stay tuned.

During the
discussion, the panelists touched on something that’s always been a particular interest
of mine, namely dreams and their effect on the creative process. Diane
mentioned that she sometimes liked to take what she called a “creative nap”,
where, if she was stuck at some point in the creative process, she’d lie down
with a pad and pen next to her and jot down ideas that came to her just as she
was falling asleep or waking up. She related a story about Thomas
Edison, who  used toThomas_a_edison_4
nap in his chair with a ball bearing held
loosely in each hand, and a pair of metal pie plates on the floor
beneath his
hands.  As he fell asleep, his hands
would relax, the bearings would hit the plates and wake him, whereupon Edison would write down whatever came to him in the
twilight between sleep and wakefulness. 

Later, Sarah mentioned that she wrote best in
the mornings and Katy suggested that perhaps that was because she was closer to
the “dream state.”


Sweet dreams are made
of this
Who am I to disagree?
Travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody’s looking for something

-The Eurythmics


Many artists
report drawing inspiration from dreams. Salvador Dali springs immediately to
mind. Robert Louis Stevenson apparently said that the idea for the story “The
Strange Case of  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
came to him in a dream in which he saw himself morphing from one character into
another. Paul McCartney supposedly heard the melody to “Yesterday” in a dream.

Perhaps my favorite example comes from an interview I saw with Swedish actress
Liv Ullman, who wasPersona_2
talking about living with the late
director Ingmar Bergman. “He
would come down to breakfast and describe one of his nightmares to me, “ Ullman
deadpanned, “and I would think, ‘Oh, Lord, I suppose I’m going to be starring in this
next year.” 

I’ve always been
fascinated by dreams. Why do we do it? What really goes on? Are dreams actually
your subconscious speaking to you?  Are they suppressed sexual fantasies expressed symbolically? Why
do dreams that seem so vivid upon waking up fade away during the day so you don’t
remember them unless you write them down? 

And yes, I do write
mine down, fairly often. I keep my notebook by the bed and jot down a few brief
notes after a particularly vivid or disturbing dream.

I’m not sure why I do it; it just seems important.

So how about you?
Has anything that ever came to you in a dream turned into actual writing? How’d
it turn out? Do you find that writing in the morning is more effective because
of its proximity to the “dream state”? What do you think dreams really are, anyway? 

I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours…
-Bob Dylan


Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer

by J.D. Rhoades

God, I hate August. 

We are well and truly into the dog days of summer around
here. Vacation’s a distant memory. The kids are bored and cranky. And the heat,
good lord, the heat. When the dog goes outside to do the dog thing, he stops at the door,
sighs heavily and looks mournfully back over his shoulder at me as if
this is all my fault before slumping out the door with his head and
tail hung low. Walking from my office to the courthouse in a suit is like
the Sun’s Anvil scene in Lawrence of Arabia.


It’s hot enough to make a bishop cuss.  Birds are pulling worms out of the ground using pot holders.  I saw a dog chasing a
cat and they were both walking (rim shot).

So damn it, if we’re stuck inside, let’s have some fun.
Let’s play a game. 

I confess, this particular game is lifted from a recent thread
on the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.mystery.


To play, you have to come up with a
line from a mystery or thriller novel containing something a well-known character
would be highly unlikely to say or do. 

For example, RAMer
Jim Barker (who designed the cool logo at left) comes up with this gem:

“Jack Reacher admired the cut of his new Armani
suit, luxuriating in the feel of his
silk boxers against his skin.”

From Mary:

"Never mind the evidence, Watson," Holmes cried, "I just have a funny feeling about this!"

Here’s one of mine:

"Screw this elevator music,"
Harry Bosch said, ejecting the Art Pepper disc from the player. "Hand me
that Dixie Chicks CD."   

See how it’s played? 

So, what line are YOU unlikely to hear from your favorite
mystery/thriller character?

And while we’re talking heat, give me your best “It’s so hot
that…” joke.

And since every really good game should have prizes, best
one in the “unlikely lines from beloved characters” wins all three volumes of the Jack Keller
series so far: THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND and GOOD DAY IN HELL in paperback, and
SAFE AND SOUND in hardcover. All autographed. Best “it’s so hot that…” joke
gets to pick any one of the three. Entries must be posted to Murderati by
midnight EDT Thursday. Decision of the judges (me and possibly my wife) is

And just for fun…what line is unlikely to come from YOUR



Let Us Now Praise Famous Fen

by J.D. Rhoades

Fen: The plural of fan. Another word for "fans," as in people who like something, not cooling devices.
                         The Urban Dictionary

One of the greatest parts about the writing life is the
chance it gives me to meet other writers–people whose work I love, and who, as
it turns out, are huge fun to hang out
with. But one of the unexpected bonuses I discovered about going to conferences and such is the chance I
get to hang out with fans, people who
love the same stuff I do, and who love to talk about it. Among the readers that make up such an important
part of this crime fiction community are a select few who go above and beyond
the call of ordinary fandom. You know the ones I mean: the people who love the
community so much that they become part of its infrastructure. So, herein is a
list of a few of my favorite fans. Note: It’s not intended to be an  exhaustive list.
Chime in with your own tributes.    

Jon, his wife Ruth, and Jon’s sister Jennifer. Jon is a man of boundless
energy and good cheer, with an infectious grin, a wealth of sound advice, and an apparently bottomless supply of Red
Bull. And Ruth? Oh. My. God.  If Ruth was
any cooler, the angels would come and bear her bodily up to Heaven to sit at the right hand of James
Dean. And while I haven’t had as much chance to hang out with Jennifer in
real-time, I love her deeply twisted sensibility as expressed on her blog Human Under Construction, a must-read
for those who crave their daily dose of weirdness and/or mullets. And speaking
of must-reads, the Jordans’
labor of love, Crimespree magazine, is one of the essential publications for
the hard-core mystery/thriller buff.

  They blog. They review. They know everybody.
They’ve even been known to put touring writers up for the night. Oh, and they’re organizing a Bouchercon in Baltimore. I love those

ALI KARIM: My friend from across the water. According to his
blogger bio, Ali Karim is the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots, a
contributing editor at January Magazine, writes for The Rap Sheet, Deadly
and Crimespree magazines and an associate member [and literary judge]
for both the British Crime Writers Association as well as The International
Thriller Writers Inc; and also helps judge Deadly Pleasures’ Barry Awards. AND he has a day job as an industrial chemist. I’ve never seen Ali and Jon in the same room together; I’m afraid if they were, the wallpaper would catch fire from all the energy being thrown off.  I met Ali online when we both were hanging
around the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.mystery, and he was always one of the more
witty and well-informed members of an already witty and well-informed group of

And finally, last but not least, my North Carolina homegirl, MOLLY WESTON. I met
Molly when she moderated a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. The
panel was on humorous mysteries. You can tell she’s a hell of a moderator because
she managed to get past the fact that I don’t write humorous mysteries. Not
only that, she also arranged a subsequent whirlwind mini-tour for me and Florida writer Bob
(who does write humorous mysteries, and damn good ones too). Not only
that, she brought lunch. Now when she
said, “oh, I’ll bring you guys something to eat,” I was thinking Subway or Burger King or
something. This is because I didn’t know Molly yet. We’re talking chicken salad
and other goodies, all homemade. And, on top of it all, she insisted on driving all over central North Carolina to get us
to the venues she’d arranged, and we made every one on time. Molly, you rock. Feed me like that and I’ll follow you anywhere.

So, who are YOUR favorite fen?

New York, Yew Nork, You Gotta Choose One


by J.D. Rhoades

Yeah, New York…

It was an
adult portion. It was an adult dose. So it took a couple of trips to get into
it. You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off.
As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you
fall right in love with it.

-Levon Helm, The Last

 Well, maybe I’m just lucky. Or I’m a fast learner, although
there are quite a few people, including my wife, who’d dispute that. But I did
not get my ass kicked by New York at Thrillerfest. Nor did I fall right in love with it. What it was more like
was a really awesome first date, and you know you’re going to call for another
one, but there’s a little hesitation because this girl is  different from anyone you’ve dated before.

I’ve been to a number of cities promoting my books: Boston, Chicago, Houston, Omaha, even Boise, and they’ve all
surprised me each in their own way. I’d
never made it to New York,
though. Odd, because that’s where my agent and publisher are. But I confess, I
had engaged in a bit of snobbery regarding the Big Apple. I tended to roll my
eyes whenever someone started waxing lyrical about the place (See “City, Sex in
the”). Oh, please, I thought. It’s too
crowded. It’s dirty. It’s hellishly expensive, and the people are all jerks.

Well, yes. But then again, no. Crowded? Yep. Expensive? Oh
God, yes. Dirty? Well, I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to walking past
garbage bags stacked higher than my head in a pile that runs for twenty
feet down the sidewalk, a sight which I saw many times. But other than that, the place was clean
enough. I’ve seen worse in South Carolina. And the people were very cool, beginning with the guy at the airport
who stopped ranting about his late ride long enough to chat about his
restaurant in Long Island, right through to the people who didn’t bat an eye
when a crowd of laughing lunatics took over half of their tiny karaoke bar at 2
o’clock in the morning. 

Plus,  there’s
something about the place that sucks you in, that draws you out into the street
to see what’s going on. And  there’s
always something going on. I spent a goodly portion of the trip just "gone
walkabout," ambling through the streets, from the historic Flatiron Building to
the Empire State, to the Temple of the Book (aka the amazing New York Public
Library) to the capital of deliriously tacky sensory overload, namely Times
Square. And that wasn’t half of the stuff I wanted to see. 

And let me tell you…if I wasn’t careful, I could
ruin my health in New York in pretty short order. City that doesn’t sleep? It barely slows down. We’re
talking maybe eight hours of sleep total over three days.

So yeah. An adult portion indeed. (And thanks to Chris
Everheart for the quote). I’ll definitely be back. Because the last time I had
a first date that awesome, I married her. 

So, Murderati, Hellions, Thrillerfest Attendees, Friends,
Romans, countrymen…what’s your take on the Big Apple?

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

by J.D. Rhoades


One of my favorite things about vacation is the amount of uninterrupted time it gives me to read. And oh, boy, do I read. I usually take a Big Bag O’Books with me to the beach, and I start filling it with paperbacks at least a month in advance. See, I don’t speed-read as such, but when I have the time to really sit down and concentrate (and no Interweb to distract me), I plow through books at a clip that makes my wife shake her head in disbelief. My record is seventeen novels in one week (and I’m sure some of our loyal readers out there can top it).

This year, I had a particularly fine selection. Here are some of the highlights:

  • SOLOMON V. LORD, Paul Levine: Ironic, isn’t it, that after my post on why I don’t generally get into legal thrillers, one of the books I fell in love with happens to be just that? Well, that’s summer love for you.  I did say that I didn’t mind the legal inaccuracies when the book was a comedy, and there’s plenty of comedy in SOLOMON VS. LORD. There’s also the fact that, when the characters pull shenanigans in the courtroom, they end up exactly where you would in a real courtroom, to wit: in the little holding cell "backstage". In fact, that’s how this romantic comedy/legal thriller opens: with its bickering protagonists in opposite cells. Now THERE’S  a meet -cute for you! There’s some great snappy  dialogue, some quirky characters, some real emotion, all in all, a perfect beach read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
  • HARD REVOLUTION, George P. Pelecanos: Pelecanos’ Derek Strange is one of my favorite P.I.’s ever, a flawed but, in the end, a righteous man. This book goes back to the time of the Martin Luther King assassination (and the  riots that erupted in reaction to it) to partially explain how Derek became the man he is.  It’s tragic, it’s moving…hell, it’s Pelecanos. There’s no need to say more.
  • PAGAN BABIES, Elmore Leonard: By tradition, I always take at least one Leonard on vacation with me. This one has a contemporary angle, beginning as it does in Rwanda a few years after the genocide. But once the action moves back to the States, the usual Leonard cast of characters manifests itself: the  weary middle-aged guy who’s seen too much, the younger (but not too much younger) female love interest who’s got a past of her own, the wise-ass tough guys, etc. I enjoyed it, because I always enjoy Elmore Leonard. When I read him now, though,  I start to get the feeling about halfway through that I’ve heard all this before.
  • WICKED BREAK, Jeff Shelby: How can you NOT take a book about a surfing P.I. to the beach with you? I thoroughly enjoyed Jeff’s debut novel, KILLER SWELL, and this one is even better. San Diego Private Eye Noah Braddock and his tough-as-nails buddy Carter deal with a missing persons case that turns into a battle with some truly nasty white supremacist types. Shelby deftly weaves the surfing bits and local color into the book without slowing down the plot, and the characters here take on more depth than in the last one. The writing and plotting is tighter, too. This series gets better and better.
  • HEART OF THE HUNTER, Deon Meyer: I finally got around to reading this one, which was in the goodie bag at my very first Bouchercon two years ago. It’s an excellent cloak and dagger thriller with a fascinating protagonist: a six-foot-three African named Tiny who used to work as an international assassin and whose preferred weapon was the traditional bayonet-like short spear known as the assegai. (He’s an excellent marksman, but he likes that personal touch). Frankly, the book had me at this point. I mean, come on. You can’t hardly get more bad-ass than a guy who kills people on streets of Paris with a damn spear. When an old friend in trouble calls Tiny out of  his peaceful retirement, it starts a white knuckle chase across southern Africa. The stuff about post-apartheid South African politics is a little confusing at first, but worth the trouble it takes to puzzle through.

So what are you guys reading this summer (other than SAFE AND SOUND, the third Jack Keller novel, available July 10th)?


by J.D. Rhoades

When people find out
about my “day job” practicing law, they usually assume that I write legal
thrillers. “Oh, like John Grisham,” is what I usually hear. Well, I wouldn’t
turn down an advance the size of Grisham’s, that’s for sure, but I don’t  write that much about trials and lawyers and
such, which puzzles some people. After all, you’re supposed to write what you
know, right?

The thing is, most
legal fiction drives me up the wall because of all the things that occur that I
know would never, ever happen in a real court of law or in actual practice. I
know, it’s fiction, and you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief, but seeing
someone blatantly violate procedure for dramatic effect  is like having a
unicorn walk into the courtroom. That sudden “Whaaaa?” takes me right out of
the story.

And don’t even get
me started on lawyer TV shows. I find myself leaping up, yelling “OBJECT, YOU
MORON!” at the hapless lawyer sitting there looking like a stunned bunny while
the hero or heroine walks all over him.

There’s really not
that much witty repartee going on in the courtroom, and damned little drama.
Most of the time, both sides and the judge know ahead of time how
it’s going to play out, thanks to a process called “discovery”, during which both
sides have to exchange documents, witness lists and other information in their possession. (Violation of
the discovery rules is one of the main things that got Durham District Attorney
Mike Nifong disbarred).

But the thing that
makes me craziest in most legal thrillers is the cliché that every client is
innocent.  I mean, I love Ed McBain’s
work, but when I came to a passage in one of his books featuring criminal
lawyer Matthew Hope, a passage in which
McBain stated that Hope only took on
clients “he knew were innocent,” I literally threw the book across the room.   Apparently, Matthew Hope Esq, is not fond of eating regularly,
because if you only took on clients you knew were innocent, you’d go hungry a

The most common
question asked of attorneys in the criminal law area is “how can you defend
people you know are guilty?” At the risk of sounding Clintonian here, the question is really based upon a
misunderstanding as to what the words
“defend” and “guilty” really mean.

Most people assume
that criminal defense is like in books or on TV, where every lawyer only has one case at a time, every case is tried (usually within
45 minutes of the crime taking place) and that every trial’s about whether the
guy at the Defendant’s table is the one who did the deed. Cases with what we call a  SODDI (Some Other Dude Did
It) defense actually make up a very small part of your
trial load. Most of the time, everyone
including you is  pretty doggone sure
that the person sitting next to you is the perpetrator. In cases like that,
you’re often arguing about what the Defendant actually did, and what crime, if any,
those actions constitute.

Example:  There was this guy, let’s call him Danny.
Danny was a long-haired redneck boy from up in the hard-scrabble northern part
of the county. He was, by accounts of everyone who knew him,  a pretty good guy, if a little wild.  He was 19 years old, had a
good job working construction, a pretty girlfriend, and a new
Camaro. He’d had a couple of traffic tickets, a weed-based misdemeanor or two, but
no history of violence. But, like most young men in his social circle, Danny had a gun. One Friday night, Danny was hanging out with his best
buddy, a guy he’d grown up with, a guy who was like a brother to him. They were
with a bunch of other people hanging around the Stop and Go convenience store.
Danny and Best Buddy were splitting a bottle of Mexican tequila, the kind with
the worm at the bottom. Now the legend is, if you eat the tequila worm, you’ll
get really, really high. Well, before they knew it, the tequila was gone, and
so was the worm. They started the kind of good natured back and forth that young
guys get into some times: ‘Hey you sumbitch, that worm was mine, I’ll kick your ass
for that!” “You ain’t gonna do shit,” etc. The people around the car all agree
they were both laughing, mock punching, just screwing around. Then Danny pulled his pistol from beneath the
seat and started waving it, still laughing. 

The gun went off and blew Best Buddy’s brains
all over the passenger side window.

The cops came and
Danny was charged with first degree murder. The D.A. tut-tutted over how awful it was to "shoot a man over the worm in a tequila bottle."

Now, first degree murder,
punishable by death or life without parole, requires premeditation and
deliberation. Danny had no intention of shooting Best Buddy. He didn’t set out
that night planning to shoot him. In fact, he was devastated by what he’d
done. He sat in the office of the
attorney I was clerking for and cried like a child. “I never meant to hurt
nobody,” he said, over and over, and everybody who was there at the scene of
the crime agreed.

So “defending”
Danny didn’t mean proving he didn’t do it. He was guilty of something, but he
wasn’t guilty of first degree murder. My boss argued, successfully, that what
Danny was actually guilty of was involuntary manslaughter which, stripped of
legal verbiage, means “the Defendant was doing something monumentally stupid and someone
got killed.” The difference for Danny was five years instead of life. He pled
to involuntary, did his five years, and hasn’t been in trouble since. In fact,
he’s a deacon in his church. He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since that

  Other times, “defending the guilty” means
arguing for alternatives to prison. Sometimes, a probationary sentence involves getting your
strung-out, drug addicted client into rehab, and sometimes it takes. Not often,
but enough. And if a defendant is employed, probation with restitution gives the victim a chance to get their money back.

So while there are
some great stories out there in actual law practice, very few of them are the
type you’d read in a mystery novel.

All that said, a few people do manage to do it right. Margaret Maron, for example, has a number of scenes that absolutely nail the details of  small town law practice (probably because she did some of her research with the Chief District Court Judge in my district). George V. Higgins’ Kennedy for the Defense gets into the mind of a criminal lawyer, with its blend of idealism and cynicism, better than just about anyone (although he does have that annoying "only one client at a time" cliche going).

And for some reason, it doesn’t bother me so much if it’s played for laughs. Night Court didn’t piss me off like Law and Order does. Although, ironically, the losers and loonies of  Night Court seem closer to the real people you see some days in District Court.

So can anyone recommend a "legal thriller" that WON’T get thrown off the deck when I’m at the beach next week?


Gonna Take Two Weeks, Gonna Have a Fine Vacation


by J.D. Rhoades

I’ve gotta tell you, folks, I am on my last nerve. The day job’s been an absolute bear, I’ve been pushing to get the fourth novel finished (first draft’s wound up and the hard slog of rereading and rewriting has begun), I’m trying to get promotional stuff together for the paperback release of GOOD DAY IN HELL and the impending release of SAFE AND SOUND, the newspaper column’s always there demanding that I be all topical and witty once a week, and I’m not even going to bring up personal drama.

Frankly, the only thing that’s keeping me from going up the nearest bell tower with a high powered rifle is the prospect of vacation coming up: a week in a beach house at North Carolina’s fabulous Oak Island, just me and the fambly, sleeping late, lying on the sand soaking up rays, bobbing about aimlessly in the waves for hours, chowing down on seafood every night, and generally not giving a rat’s hindquarters about anything. Oh, and reading. Can’t forget that. I’m already stuffing the paperbacks into the beach bag, the more fluffy and mindless the better.

I’m jonesing, friends. I’m jonesing real bad for the smell of salt water and the feel of sand between my toes. I find my attention drifting away during the day, distracted by mental images of moonlight rippling on the surface of the ocean. I’m really looking forward to getting away from it all.

Which leads to the question: what is “it all?” See, I’m seriously thinking this year of leaving the trusty laptop at home, and doing the unthinkable: not writing for a week. The past few years, I’ve taken the Beach Week as an opportunity to put in some work on the latest project. In fact, the first few chapters of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND came together during a Beach Week, when I pulled together a few fragments I had floating around and combined them with an idea I’d had on the drive down. Big chunks of both GOOD DAY IN HELL and SAFE AND SOUND were written during Beach Weeks, when I hauled the laptop out on the deck (or into an unused bedroom) and hammered away at the keyboard during the hours when it was just too damn hot to be out on the sand. But now, time and tide have some together in such a way that, while I have a deadline coming up, if I push a little in the next few wees, I’ll actually be ahead of schedule and not sweating it. So this year, I’m thinking of just vegging out all week. Maybe using that time indoors for, I dunno, a nap. Or another game of Apples to Apples.

And I feel guilty.

I mean, shouldn’t I welcome the extra time to write? Doesn’t being a professional writer mean loving it so much that you jump at every opportunity to put the words down on paper? Doesn’t the feeling that it might be a good idea to take week off mean I lack the proper dedication for this? And can we Southern Protestants give the Catholics a run for their money when it comes to tormenting ourselves with guilt, or what?

I know what I’ll probably end up doing. I’ll take the notebook at least. And I’ll write. Because I don’t know how to stop.

How about you, fellow writers? Do you take vacations at all? And when you do, do you spend any or all of the time writing or scribbling, or whatever it is you do to get the words and images out of your head and onto the page? Is it possible, or even desirable, to shut it off for a week?

They’re (Not) Gonna Put Me In the Movies

By J.D. Rhoades

Over at the message board at Lee Child’s website, a topic
that springs up pretty much weekly is “which actor should play Jack Reacher?”
The answers, as you might imagine, range widely, and some of them, quite
frankly, make me scratch my head and go “huh?” So far, however, I’ve never seen
a suggestion quite right to play Lee’s quintessential bad-ass (although I must
say, the suggestion of this guy

22m_3intrigued me). So I began to wonder: is there
really an actor out there who’s capable of bringing a character like Reacher to
the screen? Consider that one of the things that most clearly defines Jack Reacher
is silence. How many times in the books do we read that Reacher doesn’t answer,
or doesn’t speak, in response to some dimwitted question,  some unnecessary verbiage on the part of the
bad guy, or just because words aren’t necessary? Much of what goes on the books
goes on internally, inside Reacher’s head. How do you bring something like that
to the screen?

Which then leads us to the question: are there some books
that simply can’t, or more properly, should not be filmed?

Now, don’t get me
wrong, I hope someday all the writers I know and love  get big fat movie contracts and rake  in  huge honkin’ piles of teen coin. There have
been some screen adaptations that have actually done justice to their source
material (The Maltese Falcon, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and some that have actually improved upon it (The
, Road to Perdition). I hope all my friends and acquaintances are as lucky.

But I also think back on how some of my favorite
books just didn’t make the jump to the silver screen. The Ice Harvest was a
huge disappointment to me, for example, despite having three of my favorite
actors (John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oliver Platt) in major roles. And
don’t get me started on the mess David Lynch made of Dune. The book is one of
the greatest SF novels of all time; the movie is a Foul Reek in the Nostrils of
God. The Dune TV miniseries wasn’t great, but it was only ridiculous, not horrifyingly
awful. It may just be that there is no way to bring Frank Herbert’s sprawling,
complex future society to life.

Of course, the same sort of thing was said about Middle-Earth. (Some are still saying it, but I’m not one of them).

So, today’s questions for discussion are:

(1) What favorite book or books do you not want to see on screen for fear they just wouldn’t translate well?

(2) Conversely, which screen adaptations do it right, in your opinion? And what makes the difference?

(3) What do you desperately want to see onscreen?

(4) And finally, is the Transformers movie  gonna kick ass, or what?