Lachlan Smith’s thriller debut, Bear Is Broken: A Leo Maxwell Mystery, opens with Leo Maxwell, a new lawyer, witnessing the shooting of his older brother, an established lawyer.
What attracted you to the practice of law?
The law drew me from a young age, because of my mother, who went to law school when I was a kid, commuting a hundred miles each way to St. Paul from our home in western Minnesota. I was immensely proud of and inspired by her achievements (she eventually became a judge) and her deeply compassionate search for fairness.
How has your fiction writing changed since you became a lawyer?
By the time I started law school, I’d become bored with myself as a so-called “literary writer.” Achieving distance from the academy helped me rediscover my love for storytelling, and writing became fun again.
Where did this book come from?
The idea began to germinate after my first year of law school. I was working at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office as an intern, shadowing a lawyer in the misdemeanor unit who was young but very, very good at what he did. I wanted to write about that world. I had the idea of writing about two brothers, one older and very accomplished, the other just getting his start as a criminal lawyer. Sometime during my third year of law school I wrote that opening scene, found Leo’s voice, and knew at once that I had my novel.
How did you come to write the first chapter the way that you did?
Though the first chapter is told in the present tense, the narration of what the shooter must be doing at each moment adds an overlay of memory and distance, capturing Leo’s impulse to understand what he couldn’t know at the time. The voice is Leo reliving and interrogating what, for him, is the second-most traumatic event of his life. It is also a way to sneak an elegaic tone into a book that otherwise starts out fairly hard-boiled.
Has there been a shift in American popular opinion from the defense lawyer as hero to the prosecutor?
Yes. I think a lot of it has to do with the cultural dominance of Law and Order and the extension of the realistic police procedural into the courtroom. Prosecution is formulaic, focusing on the elements of a given offense, and rests on values that conform to conventional wisdom. Criminal defense, on the other hand, resists formula and partakes of more abstract and less accessible notions of heroism. To be popular, Perry Mason had to be unrealistic, with the clients always innocent and truth in easy reach. That’s not how life is.