AWARD-WINNING television writer Jonathan Shapiro proves he’s also a gifted novelist in his debut thriller, Deadly Force. The novel begins late at night on a desolate road: a young man on his back staring into the sky, blood bubbling from his chest as a police officer stands over him. Officials initially deem it a clean shoot, but then an anonymous tipster reports that the officer killed the man in cold blood. A dedicated FBI agent urges federal prosecutor Lizzie Scott to take the case. Lizzie knows that “murder cases against cops are poison. Controversial to bring, harder to win, and a lot of cops and agents never forgive you for going after one of their own.” And this one is no exception, but Lizzie believes that Officer Dwayne Wayne Lee is guilty, and risks her career to prove it.
The story follows a single criminal prosecution, taking readers inside the politics, procedures — and shortcomings — of the justice system. The author, a former federal prosecutor himself, dispels any glamorized notion of life in the trenches. From the run-down FBI offices located in a strip mall to the coroner’s office that smells “like a bad meat market” to the depressed towns of the Inland Empire area of California, one gets the feeling that the story was written from a page in Jonathan Shapiro’s past life.
Protagonist Lizzie Scott is nuanced and complex. She’s a skilled prosecutor, a boxer in her free time, and was raised in a cultlike religion led by Elder Evans, a man who she detests but whose teachings constantly pop into her head. Her personal life also is a bit of a mess, including her attraction to a less-than-honorable fellow prosecutor. Shapiro also introduces a cowardly judge who lives in terror of being reversed on appeal and a defense lawyer who plays fast and loose.
Shapiro’s television work has included the David E. Kelley lawyer shows Boston Legal and The Practice, both of which mixed serious legal issues with the zany or soapy. Deadly Force has a more noir feel. The first in a trilogy, the book resolves the prosecution of Officer Lee, but leaves open threads about Lizzie’s personal life and strained relationship with her family and Elder Evans. Timely, and written with razor-sharp prose, Deadly Force is a force to be reckoned with.
Shapiro kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
ANTHONY FRANZE: Deadly Force has an authenticity that can be achieved only by someone who’s been in the trial trenches. Was the story inspired by any of the real people or cases you handled when you were a federal prosecutor?
JONATHAN SHAPIRO: Absolutely. But it goes back to before I was a prosecutor. I used to get beaten up a lot as a kid. This doesn’t seem to surprise people who know me. My first of three concussions was the result of opening my mouth to the wrong guy in junior high school. So I’ve always been interested in bullies. Most victims are. What I’ve always found interesting is trying to figure out what rage or pain compels them to go after someone smaller or weaker than they are. I’m capable of being as big a horse’s ass as anybody, but it would never occur to me to do that, or to get so out of control that I did it anyway.
I spent a few years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Central District of California investigating, indicting, trying, and convicting a number of police officers on charges of using excessive and deadly force against suspects in violation of their civil rights. Two of the cops tortured confessions out of suspects; another one beat the hell out of a guy who ran from him, using his flashlight on the guy’s head. And there were others. They were all tough cases. The victims were no saints. The witnesses weren’t either. Jurors trust and like the police and don’t want to think ill of them. And law enforcement folks don’t really appreciate prosecutors who go after one of their own. Even if the cops are terrible, there’s a sense that the prosecutor is being disloyal. I was part of the Rodney King team. It’s interesting that the lead prosecutor left right after the case was over. Once you prosecute a cop, you become slightly damaged goods, at least in the eyes of some.
Perhaps those experiences explain the Raymond Chandler quote from The Lady in the Lake that opens the book, which provides a somewhat harsh assessment of those who are attracted to law enforcement (and politics):
“Police business,” he said almost gently, “is a hell of a problem. It’s a good deal like politics. It asks for the highest type of men, and there’s nothing in it to attract the highest type of men. So we have to work with what we get — and we get things like this.”
Do you agree with Chandler’s view?
I do. Interestingly, the Chandler character who gives the quote is an elected sheriff of a small town, meaning he’s both a politician and policeman. So he knows what he’s talking about. Before I was a prosecutor, I was a staff writer for The Recorder newspaper in San Francisco (when Steve Brill owned it), covering courts and cops. Before that I worked as a speechwriter for California state officials (Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles, John Van de Kamp when he was state A.G., among others). When I left prosecution, I became Chief of Staff for Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante. If Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush, Cruz was going to be Secretary of the Interior and I was going to be Deputy Secretary. Probably just as well. We would’ve been indicted within a year. Chandler’s quote expresses exactly how I feel. Politics and policing are terrible, hard, and incredibly important jobs. They should attract the best and the brightest. But they don’t pay best and brightest wages or afford best and brightest social status or respect. Which is too bad for all of us. Because the folks who do go into both professions are not always paragons of public service and civic ideals. And, as a result, a very small number of bad actors commit horrible crimes that undermine our system of laws, justice system, and democracy.
But you’re not suggesting all cops are bad, right? In fact, one of your characters, FBI Agent John Paul Jones, seems to be the “highest type of man” Chandler said belong in police work?
Hell no. In fact, Jones is based on an FBI agent I worked with on a number of cases. Love the man. Loved all the law enforcement people I worked with. Except for the DEA agent who threatened to kill me. And then eventually did kill his girlfriend. In my book, the FBI agent has all the qualities you want from a law enforcement official: honesty, a commitment to justice, patience, and a sense of humor.
Back to Chandler — you’re obviously a fan.
How could I not be? I’m third-generation Los Angeles. Chandler is our Dickens. Noir is our genre. All four of the TV shows that I’ve created, including the new Amazon show, are set in LA, partly so I can go on location scouts to see all of Marlowe’s old haunts (and to drink there). Farewell, My Lovely is my favorite novel but the truth is, I like my Chandler the way I like my scotch: often but in small doses. I love his writing and style. But the plots lose me. I’ve read The Big Sleep enough to know none of it makes sense. Not that it matters. There are so many quotable lines in The Lady in the Lake that you don’t mind that the story itself is a mess. His short stories, on the other hand, are perfect.
The main reason I wrote the Lizzie Scott trilogy is because I’ve read so much noir I wanted to make a contribution. And there are not nearly enough women as main characters.
Let’s talk about Lizzie Scott. She has an interesting backstory, including being raised in the cultlike church, “Convocation.” Her upbringing under Elder Evans is the source of her hatred of bullies, but she also seems torn about pulling away from the sect. What inspired this backstory?
Ry Cooder calls this area “valley of ten million insanities.” Tough to grow up in Southern California and not have personal contact with an interesting array of religious denominations. As a kid, my dad knew members of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel, one of my classmate’s mom ran her own self-created church, another’s dad died in Jonestown, and I grew up thinking most people were either Jewish or Mormon. Our little corner of the San Fernando Valley was where middle-class East LA Jews moved up in the world. It was also home to Hughes Aircraft, where Howard Hughes hired as many LDS members as he could because they made such fine citizens. The church Lizzie Scott grew up in, and her experiences in it, was inspired by a dinner I had with a very successful guy in Hollywood. He happened to mention the church he belonged to as a kid in Fullerton was an offshoot of a doomsday cult that went more mainstream when the world didn’t end on the predicted day. Evolve or die.
You’re an accomplished screenwriter for some iconic shows, but Deadly Force is your first novel. What’s something novelists can learn from screenwriters and vice versa?
Great question. What novelists can learn from screenwriters is compelling brevity. Read a script. The best stuff is in what’s known as the “action line.” These are the lines under the “scene heading” and between the character dialogue. The action lines contain the descriptions of the place, the characters, and the action that occurs in each scene. They have to tell the story in a compelling enough way to sell the picture or show, attract a great director and actors, and provide the production crew (cinematographer, wardrobe, make-up, set designers, and builders) with all the information they need to turn the words into something that can be put on film. A one-hour television script is about 55 pages; a movie runs to 115 pages and change. So the action lines cannot be long. But they have to be spot on, great. I think the reasons noir, cop, and law stuff works so well on the page in novels and in scripts is because the athletic prose of hard-boiled, police procedural or noir mimic the action lines of a shooting movie script.
As for what screenwriters can learn from novelists, I’d say they could learn just about everything else. Story structure, pacing, character development, action, etc. The older medium is the greater. And harder. What makes writing novels more fun than writing for television is the freedom to write what you want, without outside influences (until you turn it in, but even then, it is limited). Writing for the screen — any screen — is a collaboration involving hundreds of people (literally).
Since we’re talking writing, in Deadly Force, you do some interesting things with point of view, often moving from one character’s POV to another’s in the same scene. Some novelists would call the shifting POV unconventional, but I thought it gives your scenes a cinematic feel. Was this intentional?
I wrote the book I wanted to read. It is noir, the Southern California, hard-boiled variety, of the school of Cain (James M. and Paul), which means cinematic subjective and highly visual. Noir is storytelling that aspires to show character through fast-paced actions and real-time thought. My model was Paul Cain’s Fast One, a terrifically cinematic noir that moves like a grass fire, jumping from one POV to another. But I suppose writing for screens spoils you. You’re not limited by the conventions.
Speaking of writing for the screen, please tell us a little about Trial, your upcoming show for Amazon Prime.
David E. Kelley gave me my first job in Hollywood, writing for The Practice, and, later, Boston Legal. During my five years with him, we often talked about how closed-ended episodes (the case begins and ends in an hour) robbed us of the chance to show how a trial impacts every aspect of a lawyer’s life — and the lives of the parties and participants. Particularly in the civil context. Criminal cases get the attention, but America is shaped by what happens in civil court. We had an idea for one particular civil case that said a lot about where we are as a nation, and how law in the 21st century favors the rich and powerful — not in a new way — but to an unprecedented degree. And for years we had no place to do it. No network would be willing to handle the controversial nature of the case and premium cable didn’t have the resources. Amazon was the perfect place to do it.
Last, what’s next for Lizzie?
Motherhood as a working professional and single parent, her complex relationship with the father of her child, the management of her increasingly successful career as a prosecutor, her continuing efforts to free herself from the legacy of her religious upbringing … and getting back into the boxing and courtroom ring.
The next book in the series is called The Zealot Killer. Depending on your point of view, it involves the troubling criminalization of faith or the troubling nature of some to justify their crimes by faith. I am nothing if not an equal-opportunity offender. The goal is to be entertaining. I figure Deadly Force will lose me as many friends among law enforcement as friends in the civil rights/defense bar. The Zealot Killer will likely upset as many religious people as nonreligious people. So long as people read it and enjoy it, upsetting a few of them is gravy.