Book Report

by jkatejohnston

3 July 2014

Dear Max,

My favorite thing about my book is: 228 double-spaced 8.5 by 11 inch pages of 12-point Garamond type. I think I’m about two thirds of the way done. And then I’ll write it over again. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if I really could get it done in a year? I started in January.

I resist writing fiction. I have to make the whole world? Come on. But once it’s there, I can re-write with all my heart. A nice illegible first draft is just the thing. I can remember the good parts. And after a few typed drafts, I start to believe in it. I feel the same resistance when I read fiction, at least at first. It’s like: You’re totally making shit up! Liar liar pants of fire! And then, if I’m lucky, I enter into the book’s world, and it’s wonderful. I surrender.

Suspense bores me—to read or write. It’s taking everything I have not to write: “We didn’t know it at the time, but Michael really was innocent, as he kept insisting, to my complete annoyance.” I think I will write that. Why not? I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to pass this book off as a true mystery/courtroom drama. If only I knew who did do the crime, I’d say that too.

And I resist plot. Life doesn’t have one. Trials do. They’re the plot you can’t stop, the inexorable, the place where bad things keep happening, which is good for fiction, bad for life.

In my story, the plot for the lawyers is all about plea-bargaining. The case is over-charged, and the offer is ridiculous, so the purpose of the trial is to get the jury to hang on the counts that carry a life sentence. They’ll have to convict on the little stuff in the process, but the maximum sentence will be a lot less than life. It’s all about beating the offer and making the DA pay for being greedy. Declare moral victory and go home. (Shades of Chaffanbrass!)

For the client, the trial is about his innocence. Poor lamb, he can’t get it out of his head. He doesn’t understand that that’s not what trials are for. Even an across-the-board acquittal doesn’t mean you’re innocent. To a lawyer, the most delicious victory is when the jury says afterward, in the hallway: he probably did it, but we just couldn’t convict. Because that means the law is working. For a lawyer it’s all tied up with the government’s burden to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, which is all tied up with the most basic kind of liberty. But to someone who really is innocent, it’s probably pretty painful. (Shades of Phineas Finn!)

The next one I write, I’m going to make the client guilty. It’s so much more realistic.

In the book, I’m reading Phineas Redux, and it’s great. Also Orley Farm. (I told you I couldn’t pass it off as a normal book.)

Just to give you an idea, here are the two passages, far apart from each other. This is from when I first meet the client in jail:

“But I’m innocent.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that.”

“And you said you don’t care. You get paid either way, right?”

“I care about the evidence.”

“Well, I want you to care that I’m innocent.”

“How about if I work on that while we read these reports?” I started reading aloud, thinking, this is going to take forever, and mentally kissing Sandra Dee’s goodbye for that night. But before I finished the first page, Michael was racing ahead, eyes moving feverishly, adjusting his glasses, centering them exactly on his nose, turning pages. “Um, would it make more sense for you to read this yourself?”

“Definitely. Much faster. Of course that will cut down your billable hours. Bill-bill-billable!”

“That’s all right,” I said. I was already gathering up my stuff.



“Do you mind staying? I don’t want to go back to my cell.”

“All right.” I still needed to go over the charges with him, and the potential prison time, and I might as well do it tonight. I sat back down on the metal stool, pulled out my Kindle and tapped on Orley Farm. Lady Mason had just confessed to Sir Peregrine Orme that she forged the will, not for herself but for her piece-of-shit son. Why couldn’t my clients be like that? Beautiful, classy and guilty. Not that Merrick wasn’t guilty. But why did he have to say anything about it either way? His stupid claim of innocence just distracted me from the evidence.

“Our tax dollars at work,” said Michael. “How much are you getting paid to sit there and read?”

“You’re the one who asked me to stay.”

“So. How much?”

“When you get out of jail, you can look it up.”

“What are you reading?”

“Trollope.” He gave me a long look, eyebrow raised. “Anthony Trollope.” You perv.

This next bit is a few hundred pages in, after pre-trial motions, before picking a jury:

It was Friday morning. No court, and a thick tulle fog outside. I lay in bed thinking about coffee and how to pick a jury (no clue) and the Pillsbury Bake-Off, specifically the Jiff Peanut Butter Award, about which I actually had some useful ideas, such as, would a peanut butter apple pie be an abomination or strange genius? As for the jury, I had a pretty good idea of what kind of juror would be good for us, but how to identify the white male conspiracy theorists with a gullible streak without also tipping off the DA, who would kick them off immediately? Jill would know, or at least she’d sympathize. I wanted to text her, but it was too early, and we were still in a fight. That low-grade misery was running through everything, sucking all the color out of the world.

My phone rang. It was the jail, the familiar recording asking me if I wanted to accept a collect call from a Sacramento County inmate. Um, not really. I pressed 1 to accept and said, “Don’t say anything except your name. They record all these calls. I’ll come see you. Just say your name.”

“This is Michael.”

“Good. I’ll come see you.”



“This morning.”

“All right. Now get off the phone.” We both did. So much for my pie experiment. I made coffee, enough for Jill and me, as I always did. On a normal Friday, she’d usually come to the attic first, have coffee, get a little work done—billing, typing up witness statements—then maybe go to the office or do some light fieldwork. Fridays were good days. Usually.

I took my coffee back to bed with Phineas Redux. Phineas was on trial for murder, standing in the dock, proud and simple, with the metal collar around his neck. He was innocent of course, but he wasn’t allowed to testify. Those were the days. My clients almost always insisted on testifying, usually disastrously. Almost everyone finds a way to feel innocent, or at least misunderstood, and the urge to set the record straight is a powerful one: I’m not guilty that way, I’m guilty this way. Michael’s testimony during motions had been a huge relief. It could have been so much worse. And what if he was innocent? It was a terrifying thought. Then I remembered the sweatpants and his refusal to do the DNA test. Bad facts do have their consolations.