DEBORAH CROMBIE: In a starred review, Kirkus says of KevinEgan's MIDNIGHT:
“Slowly, methodically, excruciatingly, first-timer Egan shows his heroes’ plan spinning out of control in a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences..."
And according to our own RED Hank Phillippi Ryan:
"With relentless suspense, cinematic pacing and a twist around every corner,
Kevin Egan creates a brand new genre: legal thriller noir."
So how do you get an idea that garners that kind of praise? Here's Kevin to tell us.
PEOPLE DIE; GOOD IDEAS DON’T
Ever wish your boss dropped dead? You know, the boss who just denied your raise for the second straight year, the boss who forced you to change your vacation plans at the last minute, or the boss who just dumped a pile of work on your desk late Friday afternoon and sashayed out the door. Tempting, huh? Now change the perspective a bit. What if your boss dropped dead and you were the only person who knew? And what if you had a good reason to keep that death a secret, even for a little while?
I have worked at the New York County Courthouse for over two decades, mostly as a law clerk to a judge. (Even if you’ve never been to New York City, you would recognize the courthouse from the opening credits of Law & Order.) Strange things have happened there, too, like Judge Joseph Crater locking his chambers on a summer night in 1930 and never being seen again.
My law clerk’s job dovetailed nicely with my passion for fiction writing, which I pursued on every commuter train ride and during countless lunch hours ensconced in quiet offices. By the mid-1990s, that regimen had yielded one science fiction novel and a three book golf mystery series. I avoided writing about my work life because its most intriguing aspect – the complex coexistence of judge, law clerk, and confidential secretary within a judicial chambers – did not lend itself to any drama that I felt I could portray in a way that would be interesting to outsiders.
Yet one idea persisted in my mind. Each judge’s chambers in the courthouse is a private, self-contained world. The secretary and I could – and often did – fake our judge’s presence in chambers, sometimes for several hours, sometimes for a few days. So with that in mind, I wondered what would happen if a judge dropped dead and the staff, rather than report the death, continued to run chambers as if the judge were still alive. Why would they do this? How long could the ruse go on?
My golf series ended, and I worked for almost four years on a novel with the opaque title of Third Monday in July. The judge dies at his desk after hours, a desperate litigant discovers and steals the body then blackmails the staff into silence while the law clerk rewrites a decision in the litigant’s favor. The book covered a period of almost two weeks, and the tone uneasily combined straight suspense and black humor. The premise and the leisurely pace required the suspension of too much disbelief. It was a mess.
More years passed, more projects failed. And then my agent had an idea. Why not write another golf mystery series, but with a female protagonist? Why not indeed, I thought. I wrote the book, my agent sold it, and my long stretch of being a dis-published novelist ended.
Now that I was back in the game, my agent suggested that I raise my profile by writing short stories. I logged onto the MWA website and saw a posting for an anthology that would focus on the police, the courts, and other governmental agencies. The submission deadline of March 15 leaped out at me. I had almost six weeks.
I began casting about for ideas and remembered the failed Third Monday. I still believed in the premise of a judge’s secret death in chambers and wondered if an implausible novel could be compressed into a plausible short story.
In re-examining the novel, I made two critical changes. The first was to make the judge’s own staff, rather than a disgruntled litigant, the prime movers in hiding the judge’s death. This was easy. In the New York court system, a judge’s staff are personal appointments. They are paid by the State, but the judge has the sole discretion to hire and fire. If the judge dies, the rule is that the staff keep their jobs until the end of that calendar year. And so the second change was to set the story on New Year’s Eve. If the judge were to die, the staff would lose their jobs the same day.
Click. I had it.
“Midnight” was 21 manuscript pages. The first 20 establish the circumstance and follow the staff as they methodically execute their plan to make it look as if their judge died on January 1, thus guaranteeing their jobs for another year. They seem to succeed until the last page, when the law clerk discovers a secret about the secretary and the plan unwinds.
The time came to submit to the anthology, but a funny thing happened on the way to the post office. When I checked the MWA website to confirm the mailing address, I saw that the submission deadline had passed one year earlier.
Not to worry. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine bought “Midnight” and cleverly planned to feature it on the cover of its January 2010 issue. Still, expanding the short story into a novel was not at the top of my to-do list because I had turned in the second installment of my new golf series and had begun to work on the third. Then, on the day my AHMM contributor’s copies arrived in the mail, the publisher cancelled my series.
I began writing Midnight that day.
Deconstruct any event and you see that a knife edge of circumstances separates that particular event from an infinite variety of alternatives. Misreading that MWA posting fooled me into writing the story that permanently changed my approach to writing. I had solved my personal mystery of how to write about my work-day world and I had a blueprint for handling an idea that just wouldn’t die.
DEBS: What a great premise! And now Kevin has a question for you, readers: "What has happened for you to wish your boss dropped dead?" Do tell!
Kevin will be dropping in to answer comments and questions, and will be giving away a copy of MIDNIGHT to a lucky commenter.