The Lawyer as Storyteller: The Case of William C. Gordon
The Chinese Jars
author: William C. Gordon
pp: 256

Don Franzen on The Chinese Jars

The Lawyer as Storyteller: The Case of William C. Gordon

October 26th, 2013 reset - +

STORYTELLING is at the heart of a trial lawyer’s trade — to win a trial you have to tell and sell the best story. A case, in fact, is a battle between stories. Freud famously said every relationship involves at least three people; just so, every lawsuit involves at least three narratives: the plaintiff’s, the defendant’s, and the tale neither wants to tell. Judges and juries alike want to hear a coherent, convincing story that aligns with the facts, allowing them to take action. A defending attorney can win just by sowing confusion: a mixed-up jury will leave the parties as they are, so that a defendant wins by default. As Johnny Cochran said, if the facts don’t fit, you can’t convict. To carry the day, a plaintiff’s lawyer’s job is to weave the facts into a coherent pattern through an artful narrative.

So it’s not surprising that examples abound of lawyers turned novelists, especially in the mystery genre. Foremost is Erle Stanley Gardner, a California lawyer who turned to writing pulp fiction and went on to author more than 150 novels, 86 in the Perry Mason series alone. Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer (who gave up the practice after two black men he defended were convicted of murder by a Southern white jury), and she studied law herself before authoring the exquisite To Kill a Mockingbird. Scott Turow practiced as an Assistant US Attorney while writing Presumed Innocent. John Mortimer, author of the Rumpole series, was a successful barrister (having attained the highest rank of “Queen’s Counsel” or “QC”). John Grisham first practiced law in Mississippi before going on to pen more than 20 spectacularly successful thrillers.

It’s no coincidence that many lawyers-turned-writers have excelled in the mystery genre. Lawsuits take the form of a “whodunit.” Opening statements lay out conflicting accounts of what happened. The lawyers elicit the “clues” to solving the case’s mystery through testimony and evidence. In the process, lies are uncovered, motives questioned, and red herrings discarded. Closing statements take the form of a Nick Charles monologue to a dining room filled with suspects — the facts are summarized, the puzzle pieces assembled, and an inescapable conclusion advanced. Suspense hangs over us during the wait for the verdict, the solution to the mystery and the story’s denouement.

Lawyer-turned-writer William C. Gordon illustrates the conversion of lawyer to storyteller. I had occasion to meet him earlier this year when he and his wife of 20-plus years, novelist Isabel Allende, were in Los Angeles for the premiere of an opera based on one of her short stories. I learned that, somewhat to his wife’s consternation, at the age of 60 Gordon retired from his full-time law practice to take up writing fiction himself. Gordon’s website has a detailed biography and FAQ sections, but in addition to this he recently made himself available for a phone interview. I was intrigued by his journey from litigation to literature and thought his life’s story would make a good novel. (In fact, I later learned, one has been written by Allende, entitled The Infinite Plan.)

Gordon told me about his father, an adventurer, writer, and artist who invented a religion and toured the western United States sermonizing and selling his books (an “Elmer Gantry of the Occult,” as Gordon put it in our interview). Gordon was only six years old when his father died, leaving him to be raised by a weak, absent mother and his late father’s Latina business partner (and perhaps lover), who relocated Gordon to the barrio of East Los Angeles. It was the zoot suit era of World War II, and Gordon, a gringo amidst Latinos, was at risk of getting beaten up every day. To escape daily drubbings, he would dash from the schoolhouse to the safe house of its library. There, finding sanctuary, he taught himself to read and began his lifelong love affair with books. Growing up among Latinos, Spanish became his de facto first language.

After making what he describes in his online biography as some “wrong decisions,” Gordon reports that at the age of 14 he concluded no one was going to take care of him but himself. He applied himself at school while holding down three jobs, and, after graduating from UC Berkeley, doing a tour in the military, and traveling around the world for a year (on $1,400), he attended Hastings Law School in San Francisco and went on to pass the California bar. His San Francisco–based law practice was to be as unconventional as his early life. In our interview he credited his mentor, trial lawyer Stanley Bell, for teaching him the skills of a litigator, which he used representing mostly Hispanic clients in job injury claims over a legal career that spanned nearly four decades. His avocation was (and still is) photography, but writing figured in the back of his mind. Gordon wanted to write novels.

Retiring from the full-time practice of law gave him that opportunity. As recounted on his website, his first effort, entitled Flawed, turned out to be an coming-of-age novel about an oversexed dwarf, which, Gordon admits, missed the mark. “Write about what you know,” he says, was the advice of his novelist wife.

In 2002 Gordon turned to the mystery genre, beginning a series of novels set in San Francisco in the early 1960s. Eventually he would pen four novels focusing on an unlikely hero: Samuel Hamilton, a college dropout working a dead-end job selling ads in a local newspaper’s basement, emotionally scarred by his parents’ violent deaths, unkempt and a chain smoker way too fond of the booze. Hamilton pines for the unattainable love of the tall, slim, and athletic Blanche, whose mom, Melba, owns his favorite drinking hole, the Camelot.

Hamilton debuted in The Chinese Jars (first published in Spanish, as Duelo en Chinatown), in which loser Hamilton manages to solve a byzantine murder, break a story in the daily paper, and elevate himself from the basement to a desk job as a reporter. He sobers up and starts to kick his smoking habit with the hypnotic help of a mysterious Chinese albino, Mr. Song.

Three more Samuel Hamilton books followed. King of the Bottom opens with the discovery of a ritual murder of an Armenian chemical plant magnate, which Hamilton sets off to solve despite the underhanded meddling of a corrupt district attorney determined to convict several poor Latino workers. The Ugly Dwarf was next. The dwarf is an oversexed deviant who starts a church to shelter and exploit street people in the Mission District of San Francisco. This character, Gordon told me, is his less-than-flattering tribute to his charlatan father. The book also features a dominatrix who partners with the dwarf in his shady evangelical enterprise — she is Gordon’s depiction of his father’s unsavory business associate (and Gordon’s surrogate mother), who, like the dwarf’s dominatrix, also practiced black magic. The fourth Samuel Hamilton novel, Fractured Lives, requires Hamilton to delve into the lives of victims of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in order to solve the mystery of a well-dressed corpse lacking fingerprints discovered in a hallway of San Francisco’s City Hall. Oh, and he finally makes it with Blanche.

“Write about what you know” turned out to be good advice for Gordon. His four books are not high literature, to be sure, but fast-paced murder mystery romps. Gordon’s four decades before the bar provide a background for his characters. Crooked DAs, scheming federal prosecutors, corrupt cops, honest cops, crusading lawyers, and slimy union bosses populate his books. Associated with progressive causes in his own law practice, Gordon can’t resist incorporating hot-button political issues into his stories (the Armenian genocide in King of the Bottom and the Holocaust and Palestinian issues in Fractured Lives).

Gordon’s law practice was based in San Francisco, and the Hamilton books resonate with the sights, sounds, and smells of the mid-century city. Like Chandler navigating Marlowe around pre-war Los Angeles, Gordon leads Hamilton through the streets of San Francisco, calling out its cafes, courthouses, gabled mansions, cable cars, and bars. Hamilton’s favorite watering hole, the Camelot, reflects Gordon’s real life as the co-owner of a Mission District bar. (In our interview, he explained that for the books he moved it uptown to Nob Hill.) Gordon also told me his partner in the bar business was a real-life Melba, who, like her literary counterpart, knew everyone and everything that was going on in the city. I wonder if there is also a real-life Blanche.

Gordon credits his legal training for his transition to noir mystery writer: “My years as a lawyer helped me prepare to be a mystery writer.” Indeed, the skill sets overlap. Discipline and working under pressure are talents needed by both lawyers and writers, who live and die by deadlines — miss one and you may lose your case or your book deal. Gordon told me that even as a child he remembered his father’s impassioned sermons, and so, as a lawyer, he made sure his closing arguments ended with an emotional “punch line.” The mystery writer, like the lawyer, has to shuffle the deck of clues and deal them out into a meaningful pattern. Every trial lawyer knows how bewildered a jury can be without a skilled litigator to lead them through the evidence. A good story wins cases, just as it sells books.

So the case of William Gordon illustrates that they are not so different, the writer and the lawyer. We like to think of our adversarial system of justice as a quest for the Truth, but perhaps it is enough to accept it as a way we search for meaning amid the confusion of facts that confronts us. Narratives give meaning. “There is no truth, there are only stories,” concluded novelist John Rechy at a talk given a few years back at USC’s Institute for the Humanities. Perhaps Rechy goes too far, but one theory of “Truth” holds that the ultimate test is coherence — a theory is true if it accounts for the known facts in a consistent manner. But isn’t that also what we want from a good yarn? A fulfilling resolution of all that has come before? And in fiction, this is often easier to achieve. To quote Tom Clancy: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” In real life, including those dramas we enact in courtrooms, we aspire toward the coherence of literature.

¤

 Don Franzen serves as law editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the editor of LARB Digital Editions: The Law Issue, available to members on Amazon November 1st.

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