The best defense is a really good story
Portland's favorite lawyer-author writes what he knows best
For 15 years, Phillip Margolin gazed from his law office at 1020 S.W. Taylor St. at the words 'Poetry' and 'Law,' carved in foot-high stone letters on the Central Library building across the street.
Perhaps they sank in. In any case, they summarize his dual careers. Margolin spent 25 years as a criminal defense lawyer while evolving into a best-selling writer of violent legal thrillers.
His 10th mystery, 'Ties That Bind,' comes out this week and is likely to follow its predecessors onto the New York Times best-seller lists. It might even top his third book, 'Gone, But Not Forgotten,' which peaked at No. 3.
But the law came first, courtesy of Perry Mason, whose fictional adventures Margolin first read at age 12.
'I loved being a lawyer,' he says. 'I always mention that because there's so much lawyer-bashing.'
Silver-haired and patrician at 58, the sanguine Margolin still rooms with lawyers in an office on Southwest Morrison Street, but book covers share the wall space with diplomas, and his bookcases are filled with foreign-language copies of his novels.
Margolin graduated from New York University School of Law in 1970 and came to Oregon in 1972 as a clerk for Herbert Schwab, chief judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals. That lasted one year.
If he'd stayed with Schwab a year longer, he would have handled the appeal in the 1960 Peyton-Allen murders, one of Oregon's most celebrated cases. It involved the Forest Park slaying of two 19-year-old college students, Larry Peyton and Beverly Allen.
As it was, the 800-page appeal brief ('the largest I've ever seen') intrigued Margolin enough to inspire his first published thriller, 'Heartstone,' in 1978. It was what Erle Stanley Gardner might have called 'The Case of the Trysting Teens,' beginning as it did with the murder of two young people in a lovers lane.
When he left Schwab in 1973, Margolin plunged into defense law. In the next 25 years, he handled 80 appeals, defended 30 accused killers and argued cases before the Oregon and U.S. Supreme courts.
Simultaneously, he began crime writing, specializing in legal thrillers. His 'The Last Innocent Man' was published in 1981. It became an HBO movie, starring Ed Harris, but it was Margolin's last book for 12 years as his legal career took off.
He hit the big time legally when he argued Lakeside v. Oregon before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978. The case of convicted felon Ensio Ruben Lakeside Ñ who wandered away from a halfway house Ñ concerned instructions the judge gave the jury about the defendant's not testifying.
Margolin said that he had advised the man not to testify, and he argued that bringing the subject up undermined Lakeside's right to fair counsel. The Supreme Court ruled against Margolin 6-2, but just being there put him on the map.
'After that I started getting some big murder cases, and they were much more interesting (than the books),' Margolin says.
He handled the first big federal drug conspiracy case, and he was the first Oregon attorney to use the battered woman syndrome as defense for a wife accused of killing her husband in 1979.
'Betty Jean Norris (of the battered woman case) was found guilty of manslaughter, but the jury wrote a letter asking for leniency, and she got probation and the six months' jail time she'd already served,' he says.
In the federal drug case U.S. v. Irving Brown, Margolin appeared for one of 20 defendants. All but one were convicted, including Margolin's client, but they pleaded to lesser counts after the judgments were reversed on appeal.
So legal issues took precedence over literary ones.
'The law career was what I wanted; the writing was a goof that wasn't lucrative,' he says. 'I'm thankful I didn't hit the big time when I was young. You can't just take a month off a murder case for a book tour.'
'Gone, But Not Forgotten' stemmed from a 1993 dinner party conversation about a serial killer and led to a rapid-fire outline in longhand. Margolin wrote the book in six months.
'It just poured out of me,' he says.
Aware that legal thrillers were a hot category, Margolin's agent, Jean Naggar, auctioned 'Gone,' 'and it got a huge advance ($150,000) Ñ even bigger when we auctioned paperback rights,' he recalls.
The book was published in 27 foreign countries, sold 1.2 million copies and is in its 33rd edition.
How could Margolin top that? Should he bring back attorney Betsy Tannenbaum of 'Gone, But Not Forgotten' for another serial-killer story?
'I thought, 'If it's successful, that's all I'll be able to do.' I remembered how Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes, and the public wouldn't let him do anything else.' he says. 'The first book in a series has great plot and interesting characters, but after a while the plots become paper thin, and everything is about where a person shops and their love life.
'I'm more interested in complex plotting, so I made the decision not to bring Betsy back, which was enthusiastically supported by my editor.'
Twists and turns
Margolin's next book was 'After Dark,' which he describes as a legal thriller that's also a bizarre love story with a surprise ending.
'I wanted my books to feel different. My theory was readers would read my books if they weren't the same,' he says.
But book No. 7, 'Wild Justice,' introduced a character who threatens to become a regular. Feisty lawyer Amanda Jaffe is the traumatized heroine of that horrific serial-murder tale (21 bodies, Margolin says gleefully), and she returns in 'The Associate' (the eighth book) for a 75-page cameo as a defense lawyer and again as the star of the latest book.
'I wasn't going to write her into 'Ties,' but she fits perfectly,' he says. 'She has post-traumatic stress disorder, which I would have had a hard time setting up otherwise. Is she my favorite? It's hard to say. I like her a lot, and I like her relationship with her father.'
'Ties' concerns a secret society Ñ originally named the Courthouse Athletic Club (which gives an idea of who's involved) Ñ and what happens when one of the members commits a crime that's hard to cover up.
Portland readers will have fun recognizing landmarks, but they'll also notice red herrings that don't fit. It goes along with Margolin's policy of putting no real people in his stories: 'I'll use friends' names, but I mix them around.'
Pieces of a puzzle
Margolin typically works on his stories for up to two years and won't start writing until he gets an ending.
'To me, writing a novel is like solving a puzzle, and I love to do crossword puzzles. I try to have as many surprises and twists as possible,' he says. 'If everything doesn't fit, people get mad at me. They'll send really nasty letters and e-mails: 'You moron, you can't possibly have a fingerprint on a Venetian blind. É' I have to work out the details in my head.'
Margolin credits a lifelong interest in chess for his ability to foresee the moves his characters make. He's the president of the Chess for Success program, whose volunteers teach the game at 41 Portland schools.
'That's my real passion,' he says.
Margolin's wife, Doreen (also an attorney), drives him from their West Hills home to his office every morning at 7, and he writes steadily until 11 a.m., when he swims with his father.
After he's figured out his plot, he writes what he calls a 'talking outline,' similar to scenes for a screenplay, and then turns each scene into a chapter. Right now, he's about 100 pages into his next book.
But the Peyton-Allen murders may be calling Margolin once again. Norm Frink, Multnomah County chief deputy prosecutor, is looking to reopen the case, believing that more people were involved than the two who were convicted.
'Yes, Norm called me about that,' Margolin says with a grin.