Interview: Paul Levine, author of ‘Bum Rap’

Paul Levine: He’s author of 20 works of fiction, including 11 Jake Lassiter novels and four Solomon vs. Lord titles.
Paul Levine: He’s author of 20 works of fiction, including 11 Jake Lassiter novels and four Solomon vs. Lord titles.

When he settled down to write his new Jake Lassiter thriller, Paul Levine didn’t have to look hard for inspiration. He just reached for the Miami Herald.

“Like Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, even Dave Barry, I did the same thing when I got into fiction,” says the author, who lives in Coconut Grove and will appear Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “It’s all right there.”

For Bum Rap (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95), Levine was struck by a report about a trial involving Russian “bar girls” who worked at local clubs and tried their best to get clients drunk so they’d run up huge bills. The story provided a perfect setup to introduce former-Dolphins-linebacker-turned-attorney Lassiter to the characters in Levine’s other series: attorneys Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, last spotted sparring in Habeas Porpoise. In Bum Rap, Solomon ends up charged with murdering a Russian club owner. Lassiter, who doesn’t much like him, sets out to clear his name. However, Lassiter does like Victoria Lord. A lot.

Lassiter made his debut in Levine’s first novel, To Speak for the Dead, 25 years ago. Levine — who has worked as a newspaper reporter, a law professor and trial lawyer (he earned his law degree at University of Miami) — has done a lot in those years. He has written standalone thrillers and for the NBC series JAG and created the short-lived CBS series First Monday, loosely based on his Supreme Court novel 9 Scorpions. But his affection for Jake remains.

“He’s kind of a bull in a china shop in court,” Levine says. “But he’ll take a punch for you.”

So Miami still offers inspiration for crime novelists?

Thankfully we don’t have what we had in the ’80s, the Colombian cowboy days, but we still have the most bizarre crime stories. People are not jumping out of a truck at Dadeland and shooting up the mall with machine guns, but the fact that’s not going on anymore doesn’t detract from Miami as the center of weirdness. There really were Russian mobsters running scam champagne clubs, billing tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards and giving rise to a big federal trial and bar girls who were given immunity and crazy customers. ... These guys thought if they bought drinks for these women, something would happen. Proof once again, men are dumber than women.

How did you hit on the idea of a crossover novel?

I wondered what Jake would think of Steve Solomon and vice versa. I thought Jake would not like Solomon. Jake’s a little older — he’s aged eight years in 25 years — and Solomon’s a young lawyer, at most 30. Jake would see his more reckless self in Solomon, who cuts even more corners than Jake did. At this point in his life, Jake finds this irresponsible. At the same time, Jake has this background of falling for the wrong woman, be it client or femme fatale. He’s matured out of that. I thought in Victoria, who’s a little bit too young for him, he would see what he missed out on — a woman of substance who’s smart and accomplished in her profession. She’s not a Dolphins cheerleader or a fleeing felon. It’s an obvious triangle.

Why did you stray from writing the Lassiter novels?

I think I wanted to prove to myself I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So in the ’90s I wrote standalone thrillers, but I didn’t have as much fun doing them. I took the detour in ’99 to work in TV in L.A. and had my mini-career out there. ... So I’m out in Los Angeles, and J.A.G. ended and First Monday ended, so I freelanced scripts elsewhere, but I always wanted to do Moonlighting, and that took me into a four-book detour with Solomon and Lord, which is that classic setup of opposites attract. ... and then, around 2009, I realized how much I missed Jake. I wondered what had become of him. Turns out he was still pretty much doing the same thing, being the irreverent guy who’s looking for justice in an imperfect justice system.

How does writing for TV compare to writing novels?

It’s different in the sense that on any television show, network or cable, the word ‘collaborative’ is used a lot. You’re not writing for yourself the way a novelist does. You are writing to fill in someone else’s vision, someone who wrote the pilot and is likely the showrunner. Characters are already created, and you have to adapt your style to fit that mode. That’s a nifty trick. It’s difficult in a different way than creating your own characters. In TV, the only control you have is where you deposit the paycheck.

What keeps bringing you back to Jake?

He’s not the world’s smartest lawyer. He doesn’t have an Ivy League degree. He went to night school in the offseason. He was a not-very-good linebacker who passed the bar on his fourth try. ... We think of lawyers in fiction, TV and movies as deep-carpet lawyers, working in these big offices with deep carpet, but the lawyers that appeal to me are like Paul Newman in The Verdict. He didn’t have a secretary. He had a little office you walk up a little flight of dark stairs to. Jake isn’t a deep-carpet lawyer.

You moved back to Miami. What do you like about it?

Well, there’s the heat and the humidity. ... Let me compare it to L.A. I loved living in Los Angeles. I loved the weather, the fresh produce at the farmer’s market, loved going to the Hollywood Bowl for a picnic and outdoor entertainment. And then there’s Miami. Miami is truly home. I came here the day I graduated from college. I have friends and family here. But I struggle with Miami. I don’t go to the beach. I used to windsurf, but I don’t do that anymore. I really came back because I got married to an attorney working here, Marcia Silvers. Had I not met her I’d probably still be in Los Angeles. But then, could I be writing books about Miami? Probably not. ... Oh! Stone crabs! I like the stone crabs.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

Meet the author

Paul Levine appears:

8 p.m. July 17: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408

7 p.m. July 24: Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach; 561-279-7790