Interview: June 20, 2013
In addition to writing legal thrillers, Walter Walker is a San Francisco trial attorney, so he knows a thing or two about how the system works. His latest novel, CRIME OF PRIVILEGE, is told from the perspective of George Becket, a young lawyer who has always lived at the edge of power. Now, an investigation brings him deep inside the world of the truly wealthy --- and shows him what a perilous place it is. Bookreporter.com’s Kate Ayers interviews Walker about the fine, crooked line between power and politics, what makes George such a compelling and entertaining narrator, and honing his own powers of observation in the courtroom --- and in life. He also discusses the parallel maturation of his legal and writing ambitions and why it seems that so many lawyers are interested in becoming authors, too.
Bookreporter.com: The plot of CRIME OF PRIVILEGE links a rape in Florida with a murder in Cape Cod. A span of about three years separates the two events. Besides the obvious interest factor these popular geographical areas generate, you grab your reader right away by creating intense curiosity at how there can be any relation between these crimes. There are parallels between this plot and a very high-profile crime involving a prominent political family. What prompted you to write this book?
Walter Walker: The idea for the book came when I was visiting a wealthy fraternity brother at his home in Palm Beach (think Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr. Ripley). We were discussing the famous alleged rape that had occurred just up the road from his house and the question arose as to how a not-guilty verdict could have occurred. As a trial lawyer, I thought of the various ways a prosecution could be manipulated. As a novelist, I began thinking What if? What might happen if a very prominent and very wealthy family wanted to protect one of its own? Unlike Tony Soprano, it would not resort to threats or violence. Wouldn't it have subtler, gentler, "kinder" ways of influencing witnesses and controlling evidence? Suppose that were, in fact, what the prominent and wealthy family did, what, I wondered then, would happen to those who were rewarded for their complicity? Would they go on to live normal lives without any feelings of guilt, shame, remorse? What if one of them was given a chance to redeem himself? Would he take it? Would he disrupt everything he thought he wanted in order to make amends?
BRC: The book is written in the voice of George Becket, assistant district attorney for the Cape & Islands office. Much of his life, he has mingled with people of privilege and money but has little of his own, which makes him the perfect choice for telling this story. George seems like a pretty regular guy, but his narration makes the telling so entertaining. How did you choose this point of view?
WW: Regarding George Becket, I wanted a protagonist who could have been so much more than he is. Don't we all know people who had promise and yet don't seem to be doing anything with it? How did they get that way? If it is just because they were lazy or lacked ambition or imagination, there would not be much of a story. But if there were something tragic in a person's past, we want to know what it was and what can be done about it. George has reaped the rewards of a deal he tacitly made as a youth. He has cast his lot, sold his soul, and is reconciled to paying the consequences. His cynicism, his wry humor, his aloofness are all defenses put up by a basically self-loathing man who nonetheless has not completely thrown in the towel.
BRC: Power, political power specifically, is a key element in the book. Can you share with us your thoughts on power and politics?
WW: I went to law school with the idea that I was going to get into politics. I secured a job as an aide in the office of a very powerful Congressman named Phillip Burton and then, on graduation, went to Washington with a newly elected 29-year-old congressman named George Miller, who is now one of the most experienced people in the House of Representatives. My son, a recent graduate of Boston College Law School, is heavily involved in Massachusetts politics and will no doubt run for office himself in the near future. These experiences have given me a closer eye on the workings of the political system than most people have, but anybody who reads the newspapers can see that the ability to bestow favors is a very powerful tool even when it does not involve blatant corruption.
BRC: Did you watch the Netflix series “House of Cards,” which looked at political power and the maneuvering of it in another way?
WW: I watched the original BBC series and loved it...or at least the first 2/3 of it. I have seen only the opening episode of the American series, but I enjoyed it and intend to see the rest this summer. The story in "House of Cards" is much more over the top than the one I wanted to tell, which deals with subtlety, mystery and, of course, deniability. In my story, unlike "House of Cards," things happen and nobody can --- or will --- say why.
BRC: George’s delicious wit reminds me of one or two characters in Nelson DeMille’s books. And I notice DeMille is quoted with an endorsement of high praise on the cover of your book. Has he had any more influence over your writing than other authors?
WW: I tremendously enjoyed Nelson DeMille's THE GOLD COAST, and think it one of the best books I have ever read.
BRC: And along that same line, while your style is quite distinctly your own, the book nevertheless reminded me of Dominick Dunne’s A SEASON IN PURGATORY. Was he a source of inspiration to you?
WW: Dominick Dunne has had influence on my writing, not only with A SEASON IN PURGATORY, but also with THE TWO MRS. GRANVILLES. I used to enjoy reading his "diarist" articles in Vanity Fair, even though I often had no knowledge of the people he was discussing. I liked that his hostesses always seated him next to the Queen, or whoever happened to be the guest of honor at the dinners he attended.
BRC: As George tells the story, he deals with his failings in the past and the things that go wrong in the present. It sounds so much like how life goes that it makes me think your powers of observation are superb. Do you think that’s learned or innate? And does that enhance your success as a lawyer as much as it does your success as an author?
WW: My powers of observation are definitely learned. Time and failures have scarred my ego, making me more interested in what others are doing. Increasingly, I find it fun to try to discern what people are thinking and how they manifest it. It is particularly fun when I turn out to be right. And yes, being a trial lawyer and cross-examining people definitely enhances one's perceptive abilities.
BRC: George finds himself chasing leads and witnesses in some rather exotic locales --- Hawaii, Costa Rica, France, New York. Are those places you had been and wanted your characters to experience? Or did you have to do some faraway research?
WW: I have been to all of the places described in the book. In each place --- Idaho, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Bordeaux, Washington, D.C., New York City --- I tasked myself with finding something unique, something that conveyed the essence of the location, something that could bring out an element of the plot or a character's struggle. For example, I was whitewater rafting in Idaho and I did hike by myself to the hot spring that had been turned into a hot tub in the wilderness, and on my return I came through a field of small blue spruces and a whole image of sniper shooting came to me. If I were George and a person I had just offended started shooting at me, where would I go, what would I do? If I ran to the edge of the field and tried to leap into the river, how far would I get and where would I land? I did everything George does in the book except make the leap.
BRC: I am sorry to say that this is the first of your books I’ve read, but it definitely will not be the last. Of the others listed in your bibliography --- A DIME TO DANCE BY, THE TWO DUDE DEFENSE, RULES OF THE KNIFE FIGHT, THE IMMEDIATE PROSPECT OF BEING HANGED and THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY --- which is your favorite? How are they similar to and different from CRIME OF PRIVILEGE?
WW: Of my five other novels, A DIME TO DANCE BY is my favorite. The politics in that book are all local, but the shenanigans are universal. The protagonist is a former high school football hero in a blue collar Boston suburb whose life went wrong when he impregnated a cheerleader during his senior year. The book finds him the low man in a two-person law office, still hanging out with his high school buddies who have graduated from the street corner to the local bar, and making little effort to improve his station in life until his boss dumps a case on him that involves those same buddies and forces him, in essence, to grow up at the age of 35. It was named Best First Novel by a California Author, got wonderful reviews from critics, and was optioned to Hollywood several times.
THE IMMEDIATE PROSPECT OF BEING HANGED contains some of the same elements of class conflict that appear in CRIME OF PRIVILEGE. Its protagonist is an investigator in a district attorney's office who finds that his investigation into the death of a socialite is increasingly exposing the secrets of his own warped and unhappy family.
RULES OF THE KNIFE FIGHT involves a lawyer who is compelled to represent his best friend in a murder case even though he knows his friend is guilty.
THE TWO DUDE DEFENSE is a private detective novel about a man who never should have been a private detective, who is not very good at being one, and whose smart mouth gets him deeper and deeper into danger as he tries to solve a series of murders that keep occurring around him.
THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY is a novel about the world of professional basketball players who go from having nothing to suddenly having more money, toys, drugs, women and "friends" than they can handle, all of which leaves each member of a team suspect when an ambitious sports reporter decides that games are being fixed.
BRC: I see that you’re an attorney in San Francisco. Did your love of mysteries lead you to become a lawyer, or has your career spawned the talented writer in you?
WW: Becoming a lawyer and becoming a novelist occurred along parallel paths. I was always a good writer and, in fact, studied under Phillip Roth in college. Going to law school meant I could spend three years living in San Francisco and doing something else I was good at --- going to school. I began writing mysteries largely because I was reading them, but over the years my style evolved to reflect the things in which I was most interested --- namely, moral dilemmas. Through my characters, who are often lawyers confronted with a crime that they would very much prefer to avoid, I explore questions of what is the right thing to do when nothing seems to be right, and what effect it has on people who do the wrong thing or make the wrong choices.
I have found that many, many lawyers want to be writers. I think this is in part due to the fact that we work with words all the time, and controlling them in one context makes us think we can control them in another. I think it is also in part due to the fact that people come to us when they are in trouble and are in need of solutions. We begin to think of situations as troubles that we must plot our way through or around. And, finally, there are a lot of stories that get told in law, in litigation in particular, and about half of them are based on lies, misperceptions or misconceptions. The truth, often, has to be ferreted out. In doing that ferreting, lawyers often create their own stories.
BRC: Will we see more of George Becket? I hope so. He’s the kind of character that I bonded with. I’d like to find out what happens with him now. Or was it his role to tell the story he did --- and move on?
WW: I don't know that we will see more of George Becket. He had a life crisis that he had to overcome, and the events of the story allowed him to do that...to a degree. I am, however, currently working on another novel involving the Cape & Islands District Attorney's office. The Cape, because of its restricted size and its confluence of economic classes, provides a wealth of opportunity for a writer.