Friday, November 21, 2014

The Long Arm of the Law

As I have mentioned before, I am a “plot first” writer, which is rather amusing, since I outline my plots only sporadically and early on—or to get my characters out of a hole into which I have inadvertently painted them. But that’s in part because dreaming up plot points comes naturally to me, unlike characterization, which resembles the dragging of large roots from the soil.

As a result, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I very much enjoyed my interview with Phillip Margolin, whose inventive and twisty plot for Worthy Brown’s Daughter kept me glued to the page. But strange as it may seem, we barely touched on his plot. That’s because in the interviews I always try to avoid spoilers, and Margolin’s plot has enough zigs and zags that the simplest question threatened to give away something crucial.

Instead, we discussed the law. Margolin spent years as a practicing criminal defense attorney, whereas I can’t remember making it through a single episode of Perry Mason. Sir Percy, my esteemed spouse, likes to joke that he got the lowest-ever-recorded scores on the LSAT, but at least he had the nerve to take the exam. Maybe that’s why I decided to specialize in medieval Russia, a time and place where the entire law code fit on a few sheets of paper.

But as Worthy Brown’s Daughter shows, justice had hurdles to overcome in the Wild West, too. In a territory where judges rode their circuits armed with six-shooters and attitude, looking for a handy field or tavern to hear cases, and where the government deprived entire segments of the population of their civil rights, winning a lawsuit or surviving a criminal accusation became a matter of skill, connections, or luck. Colorful characters, shady pasts, and courtroom dramas (some taking place in impromptu courtrooms) abound in this exploration of the U.S. Northwest during the early days of what is now the liberal state of Oregon. Let’s just say it was a lot less liberal then. To find out how, listen to the interview. It’s free, after all (although we love it if you choose to make a donation).

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

The year is 1860, months before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Officially, slavery does not exist in Oregon, but the brand-new U.S. state has no compunction about driving most African-Americans out of its territory and violating the civil rights of the few permitted to remain. Worthy Brown, once a slave, has followed his master from Georgia on the understanding that he and his daughter will receive their freedom in return for helping their master establish his homestead near Portland. Indeed, the master, Caleb Barbour, does emancipate Worthy Brown as agreed. But he refuses to let go of Worthy’s fifteen-year-old daughter.

Worthy’s options for securing his daughter’s release are limited, but he obtains support from Matthew Penny, a recently widowed young lawyer just arrived from Ohio. Alas, Caleb Barbour is also a lawyer, wealthier and better connected than Matthew, and their clash of personalities unleashes a series of events that threatens not only their own lives but those of Worthy and his daughter. In 1860, Oregon is, after all, a state where even the local circuit judge relies on his pistol as much as or more than his law books.

Phillip Margolin, a former criminal defense lawyer, turns his attention to the past in Worthy Brown’s Daughter (HarperCollins, 2014). Although the story is loosely based on an actual law case from the Oregon Territory, the twists in the plot are Margolin’s own—and, as one would expect from the author of numerous bestselling contemporary literary thrillers, those twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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