We were thrilled to have Marcia Clark as one of our guests for our L.A. themed Noir At The Bar last Saturday at Opal Divines (along with Josh Stallings, Timothy Hallinan, and Jesse Sublett). Her Rachel Knight series is a store favorite. It skillfully blends the legal thriller with police procedural. We talked with Marcia about her latest, Killer Ambition, what it’s like to try high profile cases, and some of her favorite current crime fiction.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: This is the first time you have Rachel trying a case in court. I had to fight myself from skipping ahead to find out the verdict. In a pop culture of Grisham books and Law & Order reruns, how did you go about making it fresh and give that tension?
MARCIA CLARK: What you don’t usually see in novels or on TV shows is an insider’s view of what it’s like to be on the inside of a media case. Having lived it, I was able to bring that experience to bear in showing what it’s like from the prosecutor’s point of view. Every trial is a daily roller coaster ride. No matter how much you prepare, every day presents surprises. You never know exactly how a witness will come across, or what minefield will present itself. And when it’s all televised, those moments are beamed straight into living rooms across the country.
I didn’t plan to write about handling a high profile trial. Simpson was a crazy circus, but that was a long time ago. Time to move on. But over the years since then, I was forced to acknowledge that criminal trials have become an established source of entertainment. The “genre” seems to be here to stay. So it seemed almost anachronistic not to write a story that spoke to that cultural reality.
MP: This case involves many in the Hollywood upper class. What’s the difference when questioning and prosecuting the elite?
MC: Their expectation of special treatment, and their ability to get it. The rich and powerful (not just in the industry in Hollywood, but in any field) have layers of assistants and lawyers whose job it is to shield them from “distractions.” Just getting an interview with a witness like that can be a nightmare, because it has to be scheduled way in advance to accommodate the calendars of not just the witnesses, but their lawyers and agents and PR people, etc.
And when the upper class person is a suspect – forget it, it’s crazy town. Every single move, no matter how routine – i.e. having the defendant fingerprinted at booking – engenders a battle royal. The lawyers want to make a good show of it, even if that show involves silly, useless arguments. And it’s not just because they’re being paid handsomely, it’s also because they know their potential future clients are watching.
MP: The trial is a media circus. As someone who has experienced those, what did you want to convey about prosecuting in the spotlight?
MC: So many things – among them the impact the media can have on public opinion, and the way the media can be used by people with their own agendas to manipulate the message. For example, in Killer Ambition, I show people slamming the prosecution to the press and picketing the courthouse in support of the defendant so they can curry favor with him because he’s a Hollywood power player. I also show how the publicity makes life tougher for the prosecutors in particular, because unlike the rich and famous, they don’t live behind gates or have a coterie of bodyguards and assistants to protect them from – if nothing else – overzealous reporters.
MP: The relationship and banter between Rachel and her police friend Bailey is great. Besides a smart professional partner, what else does she provide Rachel?
MC: Bailey is usually the voice of reason when Rachel’s single-minded focus leads her into reckless territory. As a result of Rachel’s childhood trauma, the quest for justice is more than a mission, it’s an intensely personal, all consuming obsession. One that sometimes causes her to overlook the danger in a situation. And Rachel has personal issues that can crop up to cause problems in her love life – as shown in Guilt by Degrees. S. Bailey, who came from a healthy family, doesn’t have those issues, so she tries to give Rachel a reality check. Sometimes she succeeds. Sometimes she doesn’t. When it comes to the emotional issues in a relationship, rationality can wind up stuffed into a back pocket. At least for the moment.
MP: I’ve noticed you like having some of your supporting characters, particularly those on the other side of the law, turn up again. As a writer, what do you enjoy about your outlaws?
MC: I love that you used the word “outlaws.” It’s perfect. It conveys the fact that they engage in, shall we say, extra-legal activities, but they’re not inherently bad people. Working for so many years as a criminal lawyer on both sides of the courtroom, I learned that some are just schlemiels, some don’t know how else to get by, and others are actually looking for a way out. I love showing that human side – the side you’d enjoy having a drink with. One of the recurring outlaws in my series is Luis Revelo, the head of a gang, who’s working on his MBA. He’ll probably wind up as CEO of some investment banking group. But until then, he still has a large family to support, so he’s still a shot caller for the Sylmar Sevens. This means he’s less than thrilled when Rachel calls on him for information. It’s not good for his “rep” to be seen with “the man.” Nevertheless, as shown in Guilt by Association, Luis owes Rachel. And Rachel never fails to remind him of it when she needs his help. So when Rachel calls, he picks up. Eventually.
MP: You’re also a really knowledgeable fan of crime fiction. Anybody you’ve been reading lately that you really like?
Signed copies of Killer Ambition are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. We ship all over the world.