by Cynthia Chow
This week we are reviewing Flinch Factor, a brand new mystery by Michael A. Kahn. We also interview Michael & you can win a copy of the book-details at the end of this post.
Flinch Factor: A Rachel Gold Mystery By Michael A. Kahn
Since attorney Rachel Gold’s last appearance in 2002’s The Trophy Widow, life has been both a blessing and a curse. Although she is now the stepmother of two teenaged girls and the proud mother of Sam, only two when his father and Rachel’s husband Jonathan died just four years ago. Rachel has not been raising Sam alone though, as she has the full support of her mother and Benny Goldberg, the brilliant and profane tenured law professor and her former coworker at the Chicago law firm, Abbot and Windsor. Rachel now practices law in St. Louis at her own private firm, Brand and Gold, with her ex-paralegal and now a full attorney, the six foot three, formerly male pro football player, Jacki Brand.
Their current client is another David vs. Goliath situation they’ve nicknamed the “Frankenstein” case, as it concerns Muriel Finkelstein’s Brittany Woods subdivision that has been declared a “blight,” and granted eminent domain to Ruby Productions to bulldoze and be rebuilt into Brittany Manors. While the law is on developer Rob Crane’s side, Rachel has never been afraid to take on the obnoxiously arrogant and powerful. A related case has Rachel looking into the death of contractor Nick Moran, the undeniably handsome owner of Moran Renovations, whose charm and attractiveness were as appealing to his clients as was his skill at remodeling a kitchen. So when he is found dead of an overdose at a gay pick-up site, no one is more surprised than his sister, who hires Rachel to prove that his death was not as clear-cut as it seems.
It has been over ten years since the last Rachel Gold mystery, and while that has been a shame the result was definitely worth the wait. Kahn makes the legalese and court scenes completely comprehensible and compelling, and the antics of Benny are always a delight. The mercurial and possibly insane Judge Howard Flinch’s complete lack of ability to follow procedural policies and the unpredictability of his moods causes attorneys to invoke the legal ruling that allows them to choose a different judge to hear their case–hence, the title “The Flinch Factor.” In this case, his very unpredictability proves to be an asset for Rachel and makes for absolutely delightful reading.
Kudos to Poisoned Pen Press for revitalizing this series and bringing the hilarity and intrigue of deposition and courtroom scenes back to readers. Hopefully the wait for another Rachel Gold mystery will not be long.
Interview with Michael A. Kahn:
KRL: It’s been a much too long wait for fans since your last Rachel Gold Mystery novel. What was it like to get back into her world? Or have you always had the book percolating inside your head?
Michael: After publication of Trophy Widow, I decided to take a break from Rachel for a while. I wrote a novel, The Mourning Sexton, under the pen name Michael Baron (not my idea—Doubleday requested a pen name to avoid confusing readers of the Rachel Gold series), and started another non-Rachel novel. But Rachel was always in the back of my mind. I wrote a short story (the last of three stories in the e-Book A Handful of Gold), and that convinced me to return to her in a novel.
KRL: Instead of picking up where events left off in Trophy Widow you chose to continue with real time having passed and Rachel in an entirely new phase in her life. How did you decide to place Rachel in such a position?
Michael: Time had passed for me, and, I decided, for Rachel as well. When we last saw her in Trophy Widow, she was engaged to the widower Jonathan Wolf and had taken his two daughters under her wing. When we see her ten years later, she is a widow with a five-year-old son and those two stepdaughters. Her wonderful and kooky mother Sarah has moved into the coach house behind Rachel’s house to help her raise her son and the two step-daughters. Why make her a widow? It’s a question I mulled over for a long time as I prepared to write the novel. Eventually, it just felt right. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered how much less interesting the TV show Rhoda became after she was married.
KRL: Howard Flinch is a frighteningly insane judge who nevertheless has immense legal power. Would the public be terrified to know that there really are judges like him still sitting on the bench?
Michael: There is an old joke about a famous psychiatrist who dies and is met at the Gates of Heaven by St. Peter, who greets him enthusiastically and explains that there is a patient in Heaven who needs therapy as soon as possible. “Who is the patient?” the flattered psychiatrist asks. “God,” St. Peter says. “Wait, you want me to treat God? What’s His problem?” St. Peter sighs and says, “He has illusions of grandeur. He thinks he’s a federal district judge.”
Judges—state and federal—are powerful figures, and most of them are true exemplars of what citizens hope a judge would be. But not all of them. One need only do a Google search for “bad judges” or “crazy judges” to see that Judge Flinch is not alone.
KRL: Benny Goldberg is such an original and hilarious character, brilliant and completely profane. Do you allow him to say what you might have thought (or wanted to say)?
Michael: My wife is convinced that there is a Benny Goldberg lurking inside of me. I hope not.
Characters have a way of taking on a life of their own. Benny is my Falstaff. Just as Falstaff seems to have run away with Shakespeare’s Henry IV (causing it to be written as two plays because all of the room Falstaff grabbed in those plays) and Sancho Panza seems to have taken a larger role in Don Quixote than Cervantes may have originally planned, Benny has done the same to the Rachel Gold novels. I will give you an example: one night several years ago, as I was writing one of the novels in the kitchen after the kids were in bed, I was apparently laughing hysterically. My wife Margi poked her head into the kitchen to ask what was going on. “You won’t believe what Benny just said,” I told her. She gave me an odd look and backed out of the kitchen.
Ironically, Benny’s biggest fans include grandmothers. I am actually embarrassed to think of those grandmothers reading some of Benny’s truly crude comments, but apparently they get a kick out of him, too. And he is truly the best friend anyone could ever have.
KRL: Although you practice in St. Louis now you are from Chicago. I would think that just trying to keep up with their politics and shenanigans would provide for tons of entertainment and inspiration. Or do you look towards more personal experiences for your writing?
Michael: I have trouble figuring out where the ideas for my books come from. However, if I were a political reporter, I would agree with you: I can’t imagine a better place to cover politics than Chicago. I was actually born and raised in St. Louis, so the first time I lived in Chicago (back when I was an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools) I was totally amazed by the political shenanigans in that town, and by how blatant the politicians could be. One example: the first Mayer Daley (back in the 1970s) held a televised press conference (which he did about once a week). The scandal that week was that the City had awarded a huge insurance contract to his son, who was an insurance agent. When asked about that contract award, the Mayor gave the reporter a withering look and responded, “What’s this country coming to when a father can’t help his son? Next question.” That is classic Chicago.
KRL: You perfectly capture the voice of a woman lawyer in your novels. Do you ever consult with women for their opinions to reflect a more feminine perspective? And is sexism still as prevalent in the legal field? That would be depressing.
Michael: Thank you. When I decided to make my protagonist a woman, I must have written the first 70 pages of the first novel a dozen times, struggling to find her voice. Fortunately, my wife is a woman, my agent is a woman and my editor was a woman—and by about the 12th draft she finally came alive.
Sexism was more prevalent back when I wrote the first novel more than 20 years ago. Indeed, that was part of the reason to make the main character a female. That sexism still exists, but the atmosphere has changed significantly since then. There are far more female trial lawyers and female judges than there were even ten years ago. But a change in atmosphere doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in the underlying attitudes of all of those around you. Just as there are still racists and anti-Semites and homophobes, there are still male attorneys and judges out there who harbor (quietly, or not so quietly) sexist attitudes about woman. Nevertheless, the more that people of diverse backgrounds (racial, religious, gender, etc.) interact, the more we hope that those prejudices lessen
KRL: In your earlier books the Bottles and Cans case continues for years and consumed hours of billable attorney fees. Do cases like this still exist? It seems that legal cases seem to take longer and longer to get resolved.
Michael: In re Bottles & Cans was my version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. And yes, there are modern versions of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce that have long-since marked their 20th anniversary in the court system. Fortunately, they remain the exception. Most cases, even complex ones, are resolved in five to seven years—still a long time, to be sure, but not a lifetime.
KRL: From watching “real” court cases on television and reading legal documents one would assume that the law is incredibly complicated, tedious, and well, boring. However, your books contain hilarious courtroom scenes and the lawyers have impressively sardonic viewpoints. Is there much more humor in the legal world than the rest of the public sees?
Michael: Some of the funniest people I know are lawyers and judges, and some of the dullest people I know are lawyers and judges. I think my profession has the same bell curve distribution from funny to dull as most professions. But, the appeal of writing about fictional courtroom settings, especially for a trial lawyer, has produced a lot of legal thrillers by attorneys (including Scott Turow and John Grisham, to name just 2). The courtroom is a highly stylized setting that is perfect for a drama. What makes a great court case is similar to what makes a great novel: a cast of interesting characters telling an interwoven set of stories to a finder of fact (a jury in the courtroom, a reader of the novel).
As my Rachel Gold short story “The Bread of Affliction” (in the A Handful of Gold collection) opens:
“I know a former trial lawyer who gave it up to write courtroom thrillers. He claims he prefers the fictional kind because he gets to control the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses and, best of all, the outcome. I think of him with envy whenever I have to deal with In Re the Estate of Mendel Sofer. It’s definitely real, and I’ve long since lost control.”
KRL: On a non-mystery topic, you specialize in media law and free speech. But has the growth of social media and people seeming to give up their privacy voluntarily surprised you? Is this phenomenon changing the law?
Michael: Yes, the growth of social media is changing the contours of the law in various areas. The definition of the right of privacy changes as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like become more pervasive. Indeed, employers now routinely check the Facebook and other social media accounts of job applicants. So, too, employers now struggle to figure out what limits they can place on Facebook and Twitter postings by their existing employees. Another example: the meaning of our Bill of Rights, especially in the privacy area, has undergone a major challenge as we are all learning of the government’s aggressive campaign to review the private emails of millions of citizens. In short, this is a fascinating and challenging time to practice media law and free speech.
KRL: Who are your favorite authors? And who inspires you?
Michael: My favorite authors are a rather eclectic crew that includes Jane Austen, Elmore Leonard, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, and others. Some of my favorite books by other authors (besides the ones listed above) include Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Dead by James Joyce. Then there are books that once seemed great—Catcher in the Rye—for example, that just don’t seem as great when you reread them years later. Our tastes change over time, and perhaps the test of a great book is one that moves you when you are young and does so again when you are older.
KRL: What projects do you have in the works next?
Michael: I am writing another Rachel Gold novel, and I am working on a completely different novel, The Sirena Quest, involving four former college roommates reuniting 25 years later. Although there is a mystery at the core of The Sirena Quest, it’s a story about growing up and coming to grips with lives quite different than the ones we fantasized about back in college.
To enter to win a copy of Flinch Factor, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Flinch,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 13, 2013. U.S. residents only.
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