Of all the settings in which we have come to expect a good mystery -- the great English country house, the luxury train, the scientific laboratory -- there is none more popular than the courtroom.
But to Richard North Patterson, who since the publication of his 1993 bestseller "Degree of Guilt" has become known as one of the genre's finest practitioners, a court of law is more than a literary device. The former San Francisco attorney says -- with little irony -- that it is one of the best places to practice the art of fine fiction.
"Obviously not every lawyer has a knack for writing fiction or we'd have no lawyers left," quipped Patterson, who has happily given up his lucrative law practice with the San Francisco firm McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen to write full time at home in upscale Pacific Heights.
"But the skills of a trial lawyer are the skills of a storyteller. You learn to weave the disparate facts of a case into a coherent narrative interesting enough to command the attention of a judge, probably the world's most jaded reader. And you have to make your client human enough to elicit the sympathy of a jury. Which is very much the work of the novelist."
Patterson has always been at his best in the fictional courtroom. His characters' legal maneuvers are clever and suspenseful, his exchanges among witnesses, attorneys and judges utterly convincing. But he says he has become increasingly interested in what happens to his characters outside the courtroom. "In my new novel, the trial scenes seem in some ways the least important parts of the book," he says.
"The Final Judgment" is the story of Caroline Masters, a character who first appeared as the intimidating but ultimately benevolent judge in "Degree of Guilt," and again in last year's bestselling "Eyes of a Child." Masters is widely admired by her colleagues, but her personal life is a mystery.
In "The Final Judgment," Caroline is summoned home from San Francisco to New Hampshire for the first time in 20 years to defend her niece in a murder trial. The unraveling of the mysterious murder is also the unraveling of the mystery of Caroline. And the story of this complicated and almost alarmingly brilliant woman is Patterson's most satisfying book to date. Released at the end of November, the book has won the near-universal approval of reviewers.
"I bridled a little when my publisher told me this was my best book," says Patterson of his seventh novel. "In many ways 'Degree of Guilt' and 'Eyes of a Child' were more difficult to write. They were told from multiple points of view and they involved social issues more explicitly. Caroline was such a great character I decided to tell the whole story from her viewpoint. But I think 'The Final Judgment' is the book in which I have best realized the vision I had when I started writing it."
Caroline Masters is Patterson's favorite character, and he is proud to say that "she is entirely a product of my imagination." Only one of Patterson's novels, in fact, relies on his own experiences as an attorney. "The Lasko Tangent," which he wrote when he was 29, is based loosely on his work with the Watergate special prosecutor when he was a trial lawyer at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Young as he was when he wrote it, Patterson had already been involved in some heady lawsuits, including one that concerned the state of Ohio's liability in the Kent State shootings. The Watergate case involved Richard Nixon's SEC chief William Casey, who had allegedly called off an investigation of ITT in exchange for political favors.
Casey, who went on to serve an even more controversial tenure as Ronald Reagan's CIA director, was never indicted. But Patterson's book, about a hot young Washington lawyer named Christopher Paget who uncovers a stock scam implicating a friend of the President, won the 1979 Edgar Allen Poe Award for best first suspense novel.
Patterson outlined the novel one day on a plane, flying from Birmingham to Denver "for the third week in a row,'' when he realized that the satisfactions of even a very successful legal career could not compensate for what he was losing in the way of a family life. His oldest child, Brooke, who is now in college, was 2 at the time and it was the image of him waving goodbye through the front door that inspired Patterson's first venture into fiction.
Then in 1992, McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen offered its partners a three-month paid vacation. Patterson decided to use his sabbatical to write another book. "Degree of Guilt," in which Christopher Paget returns to defend his son's mother, a television journalist accused of murdering a famous novelist during an interview. The novel was an instant hit and made so much money Patterson was finally able to make fiction writing his full-time occupation.
"I liked practicing law, but I love writing fiction," says Patterson, who works in a sunny studio on the top floor of the remodeled Victorian he shares with his third wife and their combined family of six children.
"In law you are stuck with other people's problems, other people's facts. I can't think of anything that offers you the freedom writing does, to tell the story the way you want to tell it, with nobody else ever telling you what you have to do."