Q&A: Marcia Clark on Her New Thriller, with a Defense-Lawyer Heroine

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Marcia Clark became a household name with her role as a prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson murder case. Her first series of crime novels, Guilt by Association (2011), Guilt by Degrees (2012), Killer Ambition (2013), and The Competition (2014), reinforced that image by featuring a tough-minded prosecutor, Rachel Knight, who evoked associations with prosecutor Clark.

Now, Clark has gone over to the other side. Early in her career, Clark worked as a defense attorney and now she now represents the indigent in appellate court. She draws on those defense-side experiences for her new series. Her new protagonist is Samantha Brinkman, an ambitious, passionate criminal defense attorney who at times verges on becoming a vigilante. Samantha first appeared in Clark’s #1 Kindle bestseller Blood Defense (2016) and its follow-up, Moral Defense (2016). Her new novel, Snap Judgment (Thomas & Mercer), won a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  Clark spoke with John B. Valeri for The National about the Brinkman series and the experience of writing from the perspective of a defense lawyer.

Q: What are a defense attorney’s obligations? How can you take liberties in character development without jeopardizing the integrity of your protagonist?

A: A defense attorney owes her client complete loyalty and confidentiality with one or two very limited exceptions. The attorney must seek out the information that will help her client's case, point out the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, present the best defense possible and get the best possible deal for the client. A defense lawyer has no obligation whatsoever to seek out the truth - unless, of course, that helps the client. Which sometimes (though rarely), it does.

For example, my lead in Snap Judgment, Samantha Brinkman, is a criminal defense lawyer. When her clients insist they didn’t do it (which they almost always do), she conducts an investigation to see if there's a possibility they're telling the truth. As Sam tells the reader, that's pretty rare. But the investigation is important regardless of whether they're telling the truth because it's her job to come up with a plausible suspect other than her client. And if she winds up learning that there is no plausible other suspect, that remains her secret. The defense is not required to divulge the results of an investigation unless they intend to present that evidence in court.

So Sam can legitimately find out some gnarly truths about her client that she will never - and can never - divulge. Her obligation is only to her client and to no one else. For the most part, I have her toe that line.

But Sam is a very, let's say ... unique lawyer. Her boundaries are set pretty far out, way beyond what anyone - let alone any normal defense attorney - would deem acceptable. And I explain the origins of Sam's somewhat twisted worldview in every book. Her personal demons drive her to do things that would be way beyond the pale for anyone else. So although she generally does what she's supposed to do as a defense lawyer, her issues afford me the latitude to push her down a road much less traveled.

Q: How do you preserve the immediacy of the narrative without compromising procedural accuracy? What is the role of creative license and where do you draw the line in terms of its use?

A: In a novel, it's actually much easier than on the screen. The biggest cheat is generally the amount of time things take. On the page, I simply refer to the passage of a few weeks and for the reader, it's just a line or two, so no immediacy is lost. On the screen, you can't do that, so you just have to cheat and make things seem to go a lot faster than they really would, i.e., DNA testing, hair and fiber comparisons.

As for the actual methods of investigation, I try not to cheat in terms of what is physically or legally possible. I think it makes for a better read when an author takes the time to work around the real obstacles. So for example, while Sam's investigator, Alex Medrano, is a great hacker, there are some things he can't get to. But Sam's father, Detective Dale Pearson, can.

On the other hand, Sam isn't as constrained in what she can get away with because she's not affiliated with the government. So, for example, she can break into someone's house, find some great information and can present it in court because she's just a private citizen. The rules of suppression don't apply to her. She might get sued for breaking and entering, but that won't require the evidence to be suppressed.

I generally think that it makes for a much better experience for the reader if I make the procedure as accurate as possible, so I try not to compromise there unless absolutely necessary. And even then, when I do step outside the lines, I generally admit that I'm doing that and explain why.

Q: In what ways do you look to balance entertainment with a realistic portrayal of crime and its consequences/victimology?

A: As I said in the answer above, I try to keep the action within the bounds of the possible in terms of what could physically and legally happen. Do I push the envelope to the outer reaches of the possible for the sake of entertainment? Of course! That's the fun of it. Sam is a pretty pulled out character and she does some outrageous things. Are they likely, i.e., would anyone else do what she does? No, of course not. But could she do those things? Sure! The whole point of a character like Sam is wish fulfillment. She does what we (or maybe just me? Gulp!) wish we could do - or wish someone would do.

Q: Tell us about your research of settings. Why is authenticity of time and place important and how do you achieve this?

A: I always research my settings and very frequently set my cases in locations I'm familiar with. As a reader, I think part of the fun of these novels is discovering a new city or town and feeling like I'm there, experiencing it firsthand. To me, making the description of the locale as colorful and authentic as possible, weaving in details about the place and the kind of people who live there is essential to providing the reader with the most satisfying experience. And after all, that's what it's all about, right?

Q: What are the keys to capturing the current climate of office politics and jurisdictional turf wars?

A: I usually say you don't have to follow the adage, "Write what you know." I say, "Write what you love." But in this respect I think you have to know what you're talking about; whether you achieve that by talking to people who've lived though it or you've lived through it yourself. Although there are broad similarities between the kind of politics that go on in a police department or DA's office or insurance company or Hollywood studio, there are always aspects that are distinctive to each workplace and it's important to make sure those unique twists are accurately depicted. Again, just like the importance of specificity in locale, specificity with regard to the way people interact in a particular world is critical.

In Snap Judgment, for example (because the best examples always come from your latest book, right? :-)), I depict a pretty crusty dynamic between Sam and the detectives in the Robbery Homicide Division. Defense lawyers are generally not beloved by the detectives and Sam can be particularly abrasive, because she's no fan of the thin blue line. I also touch on the issues that can arise between federal and local law enforcement, because those interactions can be pretty prickly too. Most local police are less than thrilled when the Feds decide to step in. And again, that's a situation I'm personally familiar with, having been a prosecutor for 14 years.

Q: In what ways are your books inspired by real-life social issues? How do you endeavor to understand the intimacies of these problems, and what do you hope that your books contribute to the communal dialogue?

A: I always incorporate social issues in my novels. Whether it's by showing the impact of the traumatic experiences Sam's childhood had on her psyche or whether it's through the real life situation the characters involved in the story have been through. And I always research the issue at hand so I can accurately inform the reader on the subject. For example, in Snap Judgment (notice the alarming coincidence that this question dovetails into my latest novel), one of the stories involves a teenage girl who was the victim of human trafficking. In order to illustrate how young girls wind up in that situation and what kind of life that is, I spent time with a deputy district attorney who worked on the diversion programs designed to help these young people, as well as a director of a rehabilitation program dedicated to rescuing them. And of course, I read as much about the subject as I could get my hands on!


John B. Valeri wrote for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016. His "Hartford Books Examiner" column consistently ranked in the top ten percent of all Hartford, National Books and National Arts & Entertainment Examiners. John currently contributes to The Big Thrill, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene Magazine, The National Book Review, The News and Times, The Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He made his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, an award-winning anthology published by Books & Boos Press last fall. Visit John online at www.johnbvaleri.com.