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Margolin applies his modus operandi to new legal thriller


Phillip Margolin's new book.Former criminal defense lawyer Phillip Margolin’s new novel “Violent Crimes” comes out Feb. 9, and it’s the fifth in the Portland resident’s Amanda Jaffe legal thriller series, in which the young lawyer faces the biggest ethical dilemma of her career.

In the novel, Christine Larson, a junior partner in a big Portland law firm, confronts colleagues she suspects of cooking the books to lure a big client. The would-be whistle-blower ends up dead and a low-level employee at the firm is framed for the murder. Jaffe is hired to represent him. Then the bodies really start to pile up.

“Violent Crimes” ($26.99, HarperCollins) is Margolin’s 20th novel.

“It’s pretty amazing. I’ve been shaking my head about that,” Margolin says, from a booth at a diner in downtown Portland. “I’ve stayed away from writing a series intentionally, and started doing Amanda sporadically. I don’t like to force characters into a story. I realized this was a really good fit for her.”

Besides drawing from his case files, he worked on 30 homicide cases in Oregon, where does MARGOLINMargolin get new ideas for plots and stories?

“I don’t write true crime,” he says. “I did that for 25 years and 30 homicide cases. I represented two clients who had been convicted of murder, with another lawyer, to life in prison. In both cases, I realized they were totally innocent so I got them both out, but it took four years.”

Ideas for books come from voracious reading.

He says: “A couple of years ago, I read an article about using pollen in crime scene investigations. I wanted to figure out a way to work that in, and another thing is false confessions. I started thinking about a murder case where someone runs from the scene covered in blood. They confess, it’s open and shut, but they didn’t actually do it.” So this time he wanted to invent a case for Jaffe that he says is a “definite loser. No way she could win the case.”

Margolin has been writing full-time since 1996, and he’s deep into his next novel. He developed an “economical, organized” writing system that evidently works. “Young writers,” he says, “just write and write without knowing where they’re going.

“My rule is: don’t write, let it toss around in the washing machine. The tipping point is always the ending,” he adds. “If you write great books with a terrible ending, people will bad-mouth you. If you write a mediocre book with a great ending people rave about it.”

Margolin wrote his first four novels with a full-time law practice while raising two kids. “It took me 10 years to do ‘Executive Privilege’ and 30 years to do ‘Worthy Brown’s Daughter,’” he says, the latter being his previous release.

Margolin began writing one summer. He says: “I’d always worked and never had a free summer before. And it had always been a great mystery to me how someone could fill up 400 pages. I decided I’d write up my experience in West Africa (he was in the Peace Corps in Liberia in 1968) and see if I could write more than 25 pages. It wasn’t very good, but I Ioved doing it. Then I wrote a hideously awful murder novel in my 30s. Legal training makes you objective. When I got a short story published, that gave me self-confidence.”

Next, Margolin would take the story of Portland’s notorious Larry Peyton-Beverly Allan murders as inspiration for his novel “Heartstone.”

“I felt Peyton-Allan would make a really good murder mystery if I could fictionalize it,” he says. “I had five chapters and an outline when I got a call from a college buddy who wanted to come to Oregon on vacation.”

Turned out the friend was one of three lawyers for a large literary agency. Margolin asked him to take his novel back to the agency to see if it was any good. “I got a C-plus in creative writing in college. I wanted to know if I should stop and go back and practice law,” he says.

A few months later, Margolin returned to his Portland office after being in trial all day. “Everyone’s sitting around the office with champagne,” he recalls. “I thought someone won a case, but they said, ‘They sold your book!’” His friend had sold his book without telling him. “Heartstone” was nominated for an Edgar Award for best original book in 1978. Next came 1981’s “The Last Innocent Man.”

“Then I stopped writing for 12 years because my law practice got very exciting, and that was my main interest. Writing was sort of a goof, a hobby. I was 34 and doing major murder cases and big appeals and all the stuff I wanted to do since I was a kid,” he says.

In 1992, he and his wife, Doreen, also a defense attorney, gave a dinner party during which a question was posed: What would happen if Hitler wrote a really good book? Should it be published? What if he showed up in my office and asked me to defend him? Margolin’s office near Pioneer Courthouse Square is decorated with framed jackets of his novels and photos of his wife, who died from cancer in 2007.

“I’d always represented anyone, no matter what they’d done,” Margolin says. “But is there a criminal so hideous I would violate my rules? Such questions arise in ‘Gone, but Not Forgotten,’ in which lawyer Betsy Tannenbaum represents battered women accused of killing abusive spouses.”

Margolin was the first Oregon lawyer to use the Battered Woman Syndrome defense, and he’s still asked to testify as an expert witness in such cases.

He says: “I wrote ‘Gone’ in six months, the fastest book I’d ever done. I sent it to my agent who was on vacation. It was right when the legal thriller craze was happening, and there was an article in The New York Times that said every publisher in America was looking for legal thrillers. There was one type of lawyer that publishers would kill their mother to get: a full-time criminal defense lawyer who’d written a legal thriller.

“So I’m sitting in my little office on Southwest Taylor Street, and I get this huge advance and another from the paperback sale. Then film adaptations; 27 foreign publishers. It got up to No. 3 on The New York Times bestseller list and stayed on the list for 10 weeks and has sold over a million copies. And anything you dream of when you’re an unpublished author — you think, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great if ... ?’ Well, it all sort of happened with that book.”

Seventeen New York Times bestsellers followed.

“It was very strange. And the nice thing about living in Oregon is nobody gives a (expletive),” he says.

Margolin, 71, remains boyish about it all. “It was all really cool. Seeing my name in the Times was almost like a joke, like something I’d read in The Onion!”

He adds: “I loved being a lawyer. I do miss it, but if you do something for 25 years, it gets repetitive. I still love appellate law, but I never really enjoyed fighting in trials; I was good at it, but I didn’t enjoy it. Appellate is more intellectual, and I loved the research. After 25 years, it was going from one great thing to another.”

In spite of his career highs Margolin remains grounded about his body of work and the purpose his books serve.

“I love writing and working in moral-ethical dilemmas and posing questions so readers can have fun trying to figure how whodunit,” he says. “But the books are mostly designed to get you through a flight from Portland to New York.”