Years ago, when Marcia Clark was a criminal defense attorney, she took great pains to remind jurors that she wasn’t Perry Mason.
Her job was to create reasonable doubt and to get an acquittal for the client — not to prove who really had committed the crime.
Now that Clark writes courtroom thrillers, however, the rules have changed. She has to be Erle Stanley Gardner.
Samantha Brinkman, the scrappy defense lawyer that Clark introduces in the pages of Blood Defense, must clear her client of a double murder by solving the mystery and by identifying the true killer — and she had better do it with panache or readers will be dissatisfied.
“The irony is not lost on me,” Clark says. “But I’m a reader of this genre myself and I would be upset, too, with anything less. Like everyone else, I want an answer.
“So, Sam stresses many times in the book that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, that it is not her burden. Yet, in the course of finding a fall guy, in the course of finding someone to point a finger at, she will solve this crime. It simply has to be that way.”
Clark became a household name two decades ago as the lead prosecutor in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial. In 2011, she made her debut as a mystery novelist with Guilt by Association, the first of four thrillers featuring Rachel Knight of the L.A. District Attorney’s Office and Special Trials Unit.
Now that Clark has switched allegiances to the defense, we decided to check in and find out why.
What compelled you to focus your new book on a defense lawyer?
Mostly, I just wanted to branch out. I wanted to do other things and go other places with my characters and my stories. Rachel Knight, the prosecutor, was one side of things. But when I write from the point of view of the defense, I have much more latitude.
The character can be a little twisted. And in terms of story, I can swing for the fences.
I also thought, “I’d like to write a character that encompasses my other experiences as a lawyer.” Not only was I a defense attorney, but I’m doing it again, although now from the side of criminal appeals. What I do is I review transcripts and look for errors, so it’s a different thing, but it’s still defense-oriented.
Samantha Brinkman has a lot on her plate. In addition to her big case (an L.A. police detective charged with killing a famous actress and her roommate), Sam has a slew of other clients, some quite unsavory. She also has a side gig going as a legal analyst on TV.
And readers will ultimately discover that Sam is, to use your word, twisted. She has some dark secrets that will be problematic for her in future books if the world finds out about them.
I’ve already written the second book in the series — it’s called Moral Defense — and you are right. Things are set up in Blood Defense and certain events take place that are pulled through to the next book.
There will be a new crime, for sure, but the issues that are hatched in Blood Defense are definitely going to come back to haunt her. It’s going to get really interesting.
Is it a challenge to stay current when writing legal thrillers? Maybe courtroom procedure doesn’t radically change, but forensics techniques do and the technology used in gathering information does. And you have to keep up to speed, right?
You bet. That’s why it’s helpful that I’m still practicing. When I handle these criminal appeals, I can see what kind of evidence they’re using in court today and I can incorporate that in the novel. Most of the advances in forensics right now are with the speed with which they can analyze DNA.
Another thing that’s interesting is the cellphone technology, the ways people can be tracked and found. That has made some great leaps and advances. When you use your cellphone, we can tell where you are approximately — and that can help solve a crime. I use that in Blood Defense.
We’ll close with a question unrelated to your book: Did you watch American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the recent TV series that aired on FX? What did you think about the show and about Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of you?
I enjoyed the series, although maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word.
It was a nightmarish experience when I lived it, ugly from start to finish, and it was difficult to relive. With all the media hype and the craziness of that case, I often felt people forgot that two innocent people were brutally murdered.
Watching the series brought that frustration back to me full force.
But it was gratifying to see that they got big issues correct, especially the issue of race and the way that it had an impact on everything in the trial. And the acting was phenomenal. Sarah Paulson is a genius. She gave such a beautiful, nuanced performance.
It’s hard for me to say what most people thought of me then versus what they think of me now. But I have heard some people say that, after watching the series, they see me differently, that there were things they sensed about me that the series proved untrue and unfair. If that really is the case, yeah, I’m glad.
☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By Marcia Clark
- Thomas & Mercer, $24.95