Life is an ongoing puzzle for author Phillip Margolin. And frankly, he wouldn't have it any other way.
The former criminal lawyer and best-selling author starts each workday with a latte and The New York Times crossword puzzle.
After answering e-mails and checking his Web site (www.phil-margolin.com) he tackles another type of word game - writing his latest thriller.
'For me, writing a novel is like solving a puzzle. I like to set up a problem and see how I can solve it.'
With his recently released 12th book, 'Proof Positive,' Margolin faced a new challenge. 'I've never done a book where you knew who the killer was. That was a lot of fun,' he says.
In 'Proof Positive,' the reader is introduced to Bernard Cashman, a forensic scientist at the Oregon State Crime Lab with a sadistic streak and a personal vendetta that has horrific consequences. Margolin brings back lawyer Amanda Jaffe (first seen in 'Wild Justice') and her father, Frank, to solve what on the surface appears to be an open and shut murder case. But other deaths follow, and the story takes the twists and turns that Margolin's readers have come to expect.
Thanks to these fans Margolin has been able to focus on writing for the past 12 years. In 1993 he was a published but fairly unknown author with a thriving law practice when 'Gone, But Not Forgotten' came out. Margolin grins as he describes what is his favorite novel: 'It's a hybrid of legal thriller and serial killer story.'
At the time, legal thrillers were gaining notoriety thanks to the efforts of John Grisham and Scott Turow. 'All of the publishers were dying to get their hand on thrillers written by criminal lawyers,' Margolin says.
As the book worked its way toward becoming an international best-seller, his publisher asked him to go on an extended book tour. Thanks to accommodating judges and fellow lawyers he was able to work around his legal schedule.
After returning to Portland, Margolin realized he had about two years' worth of casework. He worked through it, but soon realized he had to choose one profession or the other. By the start of 1996 he was writing full time, but it wasn't an easy decision.
'I loved my law practice,' he says, throwing his arms open. 'I loved being a lawyer. It's what I wanted to do since seventh grade.'
As a child growing up in Levittown, N.Y., Margolin suffered from poor self-esteem and was labeled a low achiever in school. That all changed in junior high when he became fascinated with chess. Thanks to the game he learned 'to slow down, think and analyze. Everything you have to do in law school or in life. If you sit quietly and analyze, your chances of making the right decision rise.'
By 10th grade the low achiever was in the honors program. And his passion for chess continues to this day. Since 1996 Margolin has been the president and chairman of Chess for Success (www.chessforsuccess.org), a nonprofit program that uses chess as a way to teach study skills.
'It's super exciting. We're in every Title I middle school and elementary school in the Portland school district,' he says. The organization also runs the state chess competition, which features 25 regional tournaments around the state.
Besides his work with the charity and his writing, Margolin reads an average of three books per week. He and his wife, Doreen, have been steadily making their way through the biographies of the American presidents. 'Andrew Jackson was an interesting fellow … and one guy who really lived up to the hype was George Washington,' he says.
Margolin's own success is more best-seller list than hype. When asked why he thinks his books are so successful he laughs. 'Because they're good books,' he explains. 'Not great literature, but I really make an effort not to come up with hackneyed plots. I try to do something different in every book.'
The author is mum about recent mysteries and thrillers that he has enjoyed. That's because he is on this year's Mystery Writers of America committee to pick the Edgar Award for the best novel published in 2006. For this judge, choosing a winner will involve the analytical skills he learned as a youngster back on Long Island and a theory gleaned from decades as a prolific reader and writer.
'My feeling is the best part of the book is the ending. A book can be 90 percent fabulous and if the ending stinks, it's ruined.'
In between reading and working on his next book, Margolin will take time off to tour with 'Proof Positive.' His book tours have taken him all over the country, but after 36 years in Oregon he has no plans to leave Portland.
He says, 'My personal opinion? This is the best city for day-to-day living. The best.'