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True Grit

Criminal defense attorney Larry Axelrood writes naturalistic thrillers about the pitfalls of the profession.



Near the conclusion of Plea Bargain, Larry Axelrood's second novel, a femme fatale from South Africa delivers testimony in a case involving the alleged murder of her boyfriend, an Israeli diamond courier. She gets into a nasty exchange with Maggio, a fallen cop, and after swearing at him announces she's taking a taxi home. He ridicules her: "This is Twenty-sixth and California. There are no cabs here. You are in Chicago's armpit."

Axelrood knows that place intimately: he spent four years as a prosecutor in the state's attorney's office. "Every day you're inundated with people at their worst," he says. In the summer of 1989, Axelrood took over a friend's criminal defense private practice, and he's been on his own ever since. His clients are accused of deadly serious acts: dealing narcotics, money laundering, murder.

"You have to go to trial because the stakes are so high," Axelrood says during an interview at his Loop office. "Somebody wins and they go home. They lose and they don't go home. I have a friend who's a lawyer with the Environmental Protection Agency, and he met me in court once. Just as he walked in, the judge was sentencing the defendant to prison. My friend was in a state of shock about this guy going to jail. That happens every day."

Sleaze in its myriad forms courses through Plea Bargain and The Advocate, Axelrood's first book, published in 2000. He characterizes his work as fantasy based on reality: "It's set in my world and the world prosecutors, judges, lawyers, and police inhabit." Both books are animated by emotional detail, pungent language (a "kite," for instance, is a mob-contracted killing ordered from inside a prison), and an acute understanding of the ruthlessness on both sides of the law. The protagonist of the books--Darcy Cole, a flamboyant criminal defense attorney--denounces the business of justice, telling a bankruptcy judge in the first novel: "It's no longer about justice. It's about winning."

Axelrood's conversion from state prosecutor to criminal defense lawyer was not atypical. His transformation to novelist was. The 42-year-old grew up in Evanston and lived there with his wife and children until a year ago, when they moved to Wilmette. He was focused and ambitious from the start. While attending Chicago-Kent College of Law, he delivered pizzas to make money and volunteered with the state's attorney. After graduating from law school in 1985, he began working in that office--"I was in appeals," he says, "first municipal felony review, preliminary hearings, and the felony trial division."

A voracious reader, Axelrood ripped through biographies and books about history. As a kid he liked the crime novels of Joseph Wambaugh, which led him to read Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. But his favorite was Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels. Parker's evocation of Boston and Leonard's of Detroit are what stirred him to write. "In 1986 or 1987, I don't know whether it was insanity or ego, though specifically after reading Parker, I started writing seriously," he says. He wrote in frenzied bursts. He wrote down ideas on legal pads during sessions in court. He wrote at night, on his lunch breaks, and during court recesses. Eventually he accumulated a manuscript of more than 400 pages, which he called "Felony Review."

He showed "Felony Review" to a friend, who was critical but encouraging. Axelrood hired an editor, and together they radically tore down and reconstructed the manuscript. "It was like rehabbing a building--I just stripped it down to the studs and then started rebuilding," he says. That was the easy part; the larger task confronting a new writer is finding a publisher. "I probably wasted three years doing it the wrong way," Axelrood says.

Eventually he secured an agent, and in a potential breakthrough got offered an option from a television production company at Warner Brothers. At that point Axelrood made a grievous mistake--he fired his agent and hired a firm that had a background in negotiating television and film rights. "In retrospect, [the first agent] was doing everything the right way, and I couldn't understand how long it was taking," Axelrood says. The deal collapsed, and he went through two other agents without anything else materializing.

In 1996 publishing executive Ron Pitkin founded Cumberland House Publishing in Nashville; Axelrood learned about the place from a colleague who knew Pitkin. At the time Axelrood was sending out the novel to numerous firms, and the process was growing increasingly nerve-racking. "Whenever I'd get to the office, if it got very quiet and the secretary would scurry back to her room, I knew that meant I had a rejection sitting on my desk," he says.

One day Axelrood arrived at his office to find a returned manuscript accompanied by a seven-page letter from Pitkin, who said that he liked the book and thought it demonstrated flair and talent. He also said this visceral, dark thriller wasn't very marketable. "It was the first time somebody told me the book was not salable," Axelrood says. After reluctantly conceding it wasn't commercial enough, Axelrood began work on another novel. Originally called "Flippers"--a lawyer's term for criminals who turn state's evidence--it was a legal thriller dominated by the charismatic Cole.

Cumberland House is a regional publisher specializing in nonfiction titles: its most popular works are about cooking, history, and sports. "Larry sent me the first book, and it didn't seem to me to have the protagonist to carry the elements forward," Pitkin says. "Then he sent me the next, and I read through it--I thought it needed some work. I made some suggestions. You can only afford to invest in a new fiction writer one at a time. On 85 to 90 percent, you lose money working with fiction writers. You invest a lot, and you tend to lose money on the first 5, 10, or 15 [novels] unless you're a major house that can put a lot of promotion there." But Darcy Cole struck a chord with Pitkin. "I liked the idea of an attorney, a very successful one, who starts to wonder if it is worth the price to pay for his success," he says. "I saw this as a novel that had hope of establishing a good character and series."

The Advocate (Pitkin came up with the title) was published in the fall of 2000. It opens with Cole securing a questionable acquittal in the case of a beautiful young woman, Lynne Tobias, charged with conspiracy in the death of her husband. Then she's arrested on federal charges of insurance fraud. On the eve of her trial, Cole discovers he's the target of a contract killing ordered by a vengeful former client, a young sociopath whose father runs the Chicago underworld. The book's tone is melancholy, suggesting that Cole's professional success masks profound moral compromise and personal disappointment.

Both The Advocate and Plea Bargain also feature a minor but distinctive character named Seymour Hirsch, a wry, low-key lawyer who personifies what's noble and good about the profession. When he and Cole play chess, they discuss the philosophical nature of law. Axelrood is careful to separate himself from his characters. "Darcy's not an alter ego," he says. "He's made a lot of money, but he's made a mess of his life. Darcy is an amalgam of a lot of different lawyers I've known, and he's an example of where the practice can take you. In order to be successful, you have to be driven. Darcy's pretty much lost everything in the climb. He's trying to regain some of that which has been lost, and he's aware that most of what he's lost cannot be regained.

"I think one of the things that men my age do is they get to a point, they say, 'How successful do I want to be and at what cost?' You make a decision on how successful you want to be, and it's based on what you're willing to give up."

If Scott Turow's books are about how institutions function within the labyrinthine legal system, Axelrood's are more naturalistic, paying attention to the emotional nuances of lawyering. "[Axelrood's] novel is gritty, sometimes scary, but you never doubt that, yes, this is probably what it's like to practice criminal law [in Chicago]," wrote Patrick Anderson about Plea Bargain in the Washington Post, where he also named the novel one of the best mysteries of 2002.

"I know a lot of lawyers would agree that being a lawyer is a lousy way to make a good living," Axelrood says. "You deal with people's problems, and you move from crisis to crisis. You're worried about compassion burnout--you have to toughen up, like an emergency room doctor. There's always this balance that you're trying to remain professional, but you're worried that you're becoming distant and getting jaded or cynical."

Axelrood's wife--Anne Sherman, an editor at Playboy--stayed out of his way when he was seeking a publisher, and he says she was skeptical whether The Advocate would ever turn up in a bookstore. "My wife is very smart, well-read, and engaging. I think what helped me regain my balance [professionally] was getting married and becoming a father. It has helped me leave my work at work," he says.

So has his writing. "The writing is an antidote to my job," he says. "My job sucks the creativity out of me, and the writing allows me to regenerate it and have an outlet for it. It's your own. It's intensely personal, even private, and then you share it with everybody. I suppose it's a selfish pursuit that does not have a lot of downside."

In Plea Bargain, set about a year after the end of The Advocate, Axelrood makes the necessary allusions to the first work and deepens the characterizations of Cole and three colleagues: Colatta, a weary, gruff, but skilled former police officer turned private investigator, and Cole's two partners, Kathy and Patrick, a former federal prosecutor.

More ambitious and oblique than The Advocate, the novel evokes Jim Thompson's famous observation about his own fiction: nothing is ever what it appears. The story revolves around a series of deceptions--a white-collar criminal who's far worse than he seems, a supposed dead man who turns up very much alive, and the corrupt cop who proves himself capable of enlightenment and grace. More hopeful than The Advocate, the second book features a love affair between Cole and a beautiful emergency room doctor. Released last fall, the novel is still in its first printing; sales are hovering around 5,000 copies, according to Pitkin. "Those numbers won't threaten Turow or John Grisham, but for a hardcover mystery book by an unknown writer, they're very acceptable," he says.

Writing in what he calls streaks, Axelrood is currently finishing his third Darcy Cole novel. In this one he focuses on the intractability of law, the quagmire of process, personalities, and political consequences. "There are times that lawyers feel most ineffective, no matter what they do," he says. "I hate to lose. Sometimes there is no way around it. A lot of times we can't win, all we can do is mitigate, and lessen the price that a person is going to pay."

Though apparently able to reconcile his fluid, rhyming identities, Axelrood says that writing crime novels requires some "larceny in your heart," an understanding of the criminal mind. "The whole point of writing fiction, you get to create the universe you want and get the results you want. I don't want to be accurate. I want to be interesting."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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