Please help me to welcome author, Paul Levine. This former lawyer’s many books have been acclaimed as “Genuinely Chilling” by the Washington Post and as “Mystery Writing at its very, very best” by Larry King on USA Today.
His newest novel, Illegal, has won rave reviews:
“ILLEGAL is a riveting read, filled with action, pathos, and even humor. The portrait of the dangers and predations that Latinos face crossing the border is chilling and rings with authenticity. But the book’s best quality is the way Levine invests his characters with believable humanity. A compulsively readable yet character-driven thriller.” - Booklist
"Entertaining. Payne has a broad enough backstory and personal charm to head up a series on his own." - Publishers Weekly
"This pedal-to-the-medal thriller wraps a gripping story around a current topic. Levine knows how to turn a phrase, especially with the colorful characters he's created." - Romantic Times
Paul Levine worked as a newspaper reporter, a law professor and a trial lawyer before becoming a full-time novelist.
“Obviously, I cannot hold a job,” he says.
Paul claims that writing fiction comes naturally: “I told whoppers for many years in my legal briefs.”
He is the author of the “Jake Lassiter series” for which he won the John D. MacDonald award and the “Solomon vs. Lord” books which were nominated for an Edgar, a Macavity, a Thriller Writers award and the James Thurber Prize. His books have been translated into 23 languages, none of which he can read. In Germany, for reasons he does not understand, he is published under the name “Polly Levine.”
His novel, “Illegal” (Bantam Hardcover), introduces Jimmy (Royal) Payne. The down-and-out L.A. lawyer pans to skip town, but he crosses paths with 12-year-old Tino Perez, newly arrived from Mexico with no money, no papers, and no fear. The gutsy kid wants Payne’s help. Marisol, Tino’s mother, disappeared when a border crossing went to hell. The dilemma for Payne: should he help these total strangers or look out for himself? Against his better judgment, Payne tracks Marisol from Mexicali to California’s Hellhole Canyon where he’s swept into the dark current of human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Brooke: Your earlier books were very humorous. Does “Illegal” take you in a new direction?
Paul: The “Solomon vs. Lord” novels relied heavily on banter between Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. The series was my homage to Katherine Hepburn and Spency Tracy movies. “Illegal” has more meat on its bones. It deals with serious issues of broken borders, illegal immigration, and human trafficking. But the number one goal of popular fiction is to entertain. In the opening scene, Payne is stark naked being searched for a wire by a suspicious judge. Payne is, after all, trying to bribe the judge. There’s more than a sprinkling of humor in the book.
BL: What’s the main difference between caper novels like your earlier ones and true thrillers like “Illegal?”
Paul: As a thriller, suspense and jeopardy are the bywords. There are many harrowing moments in “Illegal.” The midnight border crossing; the meth-addled stash house guard who shoots apples off the heads of the migrants, the bloody kill floor of the meatpacking plant, and the threats of the land baron who can bury people in a levee where they’ll never be found. The tension ratchets up as the stakes become higher: will it be life or death for Jimmy Payne, Tino and Marisol Perez?
BL: How much of Paul Levine is in the character of Jimmy Payne?
Paul: Payne is a damaged character. I'm 61, an age where everyone is damaged in one way or another. A bad marriage, a career setback, a dark spot that turns up on the x-ray. All life is about loss. Payne, in some ways, is a more real character than Jake Lassiter or Steve Solomon. He’s had a tragedy – I don’t want to give away here – that unbalances him. He begins the book looking for revenge and ends it risking his life for strangers.
BL: ILLEGAL is much darker in tone than the Solomon vs. Lord novels. Can you share how it felt to switch from writing the more comedic Solomon vs. Lord books to ILLEGAL? Was it difficult to make the transition from writing about Steve and Victoria to writing about Jimmy and Sharon?
Paul: Sly humor is my natural tone of voice, so Solomon vs. Lord was a hanging curve ball right right over the middle of the plate. Two people are attracted to each other but drive each other crazy...well, that's just plain fun to write and read. But it's different with Payne. Once you create a character who has suffered a life-altering tragedy, there's no room for pie-in-the-face yucks. That doesn't mean Payne is without humor. He's filled with anger, and his wit is biting. Payne uses zingers as a sword, not a shield. So, now not more difficult to write Payne, just more payne-ful. Once I knew who he was, he flowed naturally onto the page.
BL: What would you do to resolve the illegal immigration problem?
Paul: The book is clearly sympathetic to hard-working people who risk their lives to come here and are preyed upon by predators on both sides of the border. The cruelty inflicted on the immigrants --- particularly south of the border --- is really horrible. I set up debates between the open borders advocates and those who would place machine gun turrets in El Paso. This sounds like a cop out, but I don't have the answers. Obviously, we can't deport millions of people. Security is being upgraded along the border, but there's a new problem. Mexican drug cartels are taking over human trafficking operations. More violence is sure to follow. This problem is going to explode soon, and I'm not sure we're ready for it.
BL: What inspired you to take on a story with such social significance?
Paul: Several things came together to influence and inspire me. Residents of San Diego County and Imperial County are familiar with the yellow "Caution" signs with the man, woman, and child running across the road. It's a warning to be on the lookout for illegals who might dash in front of your car like a deer leaping from the woods. I saw one sign pockmarked by bullets. Well, that's a pretty good image to get the mind working. "Welcome to the U.S." About the same time was the news story about the undocumented aliens locked in the back of a metal refrigeration truck (with no refrigeration on). Several baked to death in a run across the desert.
BL: Your dedication in ILLEGAL is as follows: “To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.” Did this encounter provide the inspiration for Marisol and Tino?
Paul: It sure did. I had a chance encounter with a mother and son who had just gotten out of the toxic New River, a poisonous dump of a stream that flows north from Mexico. Well, that did it. They were Marisol and Tino Perez, but in my imagination, they become separated at the border. She goes missing, and Tino must get Jimmy Payne --- a guy who these days doesn't help anyone --- to help him. By the way, I wrote a short piece about my border encounter. http://live.psu.edu/story/38537
BL: What’s next for you?
Paul: Another Jimmy Payne. Working on it now, but I can’t tell you anything about it except that 12-year-old Tino will be back, too.
Thanks so much for joining us here today, Paul! I can't wait to read Illegal.
Read more about “Illegal” at http://www.paul-levine.com
Jimmy (Royal) Payne, a down-on-his-luck lawyer, battles cops, coyotes, and a corrupt and powerful rancher, as he tracks a beautiful Mexican woman who disappeared on a midnight border crossing, and is swept into the world of human trafficking.
Haunted by a tragedy in his past and wanted by the cops for his latest malfeasance, Jimmy Payne needs to skip town. That’s when he crosses paths with twelve-year-old Tino Perez, newly arrived from Mexico with no money and no papers. The gutsy kid first robs Payne, then pleads for his help. Marisol, the boy’s mother, is missing, after crossing the border with a vicious coyote.
Following a chain of greed, corruption, and betrayal, Payne traces Marisol’s steps from Mexicali to California’s Hellhole Canyon. Before long, the cynical lawyer and the savvy kid are bonding…and battling predators on both sides of the border. It’s the two of them against an army of cops, coyotes, vigilantes, and sex slavers.
Most dangerous of all is Simeon Rutledge, a wealthy rancher and the biggest employer of farm workers in California.
Just why is Rutledge willing to bribe Payne—or kill him—to keep Marisol under wraps? Will Payne’s quest redeem his mistakes and resurrect his dead marriage—or get him buried in a shallow grave? Either way, he’ll find out there’s no escaping his past.
From the shadows of migrant stash houses to the fertile fields of the San Joaquin Valley, Illegal delivers a searing mix of live-wire prose, shattering violence, and rich characterization, all set against a backdrop of larger social issues.
Judge Rollins drew a handgun from beneath his black robes, pointed the snub-nosed barrel at Jimmy Payne’s chest and said, “Who you pimping for, you low-life shyster?”
Payne gaped at the revolver.
This cannot be happening.
The judge gestured toward the stacks of hundred dollar bills on his desk. “C’mon, Payne. You’re not smart enough to dream this up on your own.”
They faced each other in the judge’s chambers, a tranquil place of leather-bound books and walnut wainscoting. Payne felt his knees wobble. “I swear, Judge. I just represent the defendant. Ramon Carollo.”
“Not like you to defend human traffickers. I remember the hell you raised when those wetbacks got barbecued in a trailer truck.”
“I like to call them ‘undocumented aliens.’”
“Why? They from Mars?”
The judge vaulted out of his high-backed chair. Quick for a big man. Silver hair swept straight back, like feathers on a snow goose. Shoulders as wide as a bookcase.
“Take off your clothes.”
“You heard me.”
“I swear I’m not wearing a wire. You can pat me down.”
Payne wasn’t sure he could. His joints seemed rusted shut.
With jerky motions, Payne kicked off his shoes, unhooked his belt, and dropped his trousers.
“You bring me nine stacks of hundred dollar bills, fifty to a stack.” Judge Rollins motioned toward the open briefcase on his desk and did the math in his head. “Forty-five thousand dollars.”
“That’s the offer,” Payne agreed.
“Odd amount. Like it was supposed to be fifty thousand, but some half-assed bagman skimmed five off the top.”
“No, Sir.” Payne lowered his tie slipped out of his shirt. “Forty-five is all I’ve got to spend.”
“No sale, shitbird.”
“I thought it was worth a shot, Your Honor. But let’s just forget the whole thing. I’ll put my pants on and--”
“Drop those undershorts, too.” The judge waved the gun like a king with a scepter.
Payne pulled down his red and white boxers with the Los Angeles Clippers’ logo. He preferred them to the Lakers’ purple and gold shorts, not for the colors, but because he favored underdogs.
“Now, turn around and spread your cheeks.”
“No way, Judge.”
At 37, Payne was in good shape. Flat stomach, decent chest, a sinewy runner’s body. He spun around and bent over.
“Like I said, Your Honor, no wire.”
Judge Rollins gazed off. “I don’t know whether to shoot you or arrest you.”
Jimmy straightened up and turned around. “Just let me go, Judge. There’s a lot of good I can do out there.”
“Out where? You’re Jimmy Payne. Royal Payne. You cut corners. You represent undesirables. You piss people off.”
“Honestly, Judge. I’m gonna change my life.”
“People don’t change, Payne. They just get old and die. Sometimes, they don’t even get old.”
Jimmy stepped sideways toward a set of shelves decorated with framed vanity photos. Judge Rollins with Mayor Villaraigosa, Senator Boxer, some local bigwigs, and a pretty young woman in a pink sash, the Rose Bowl queen, maybe. Alongside the photos, the scales of justice. Bronze. Heavy. Tilted heavily to one side. One more step and Payne could grab the scales by the blindfolded lady and take swing at the judge.
“Freeze, sleazebag.” Rollins pulled back the hammer of the .38.
With the click echoing in his brain, Payne thought of his son, Adam. Ten years old. Loved baseball. Cheeseburgers. Surfing. A boy needs his father.
Just how the hell did I get into this?
One hour before he stood, naked and terrified, in the chambers of the Honorable Walter Rollins, Jimmy Payne stood, clothed and angry, glaring at a wooden pin some sixty feet away.
Payne hated the five-pin nearly as much as he hated Cullen Quinn, his ex-wife’s fiancé. And there the damn thing stood – the pin, not Quinn – smack in the middle of the lane, taunting him. For most bowlers, the five was the easiest spare, but for Payne, the ten-pin – that loner at the right edge of the lane – was the gimmee. The trick, he knew, was not being afraid of dropping into the gutter.
Payne’s second ball whooshed past the five and thwomped harmlessly into the pit, leaving the pin standing. Giving him the finger.
Damn. Even Barack Obama could have made that spare.
So could Payne’s son. He thought about taking Adam bowling this weekend. His eleventh birthday was coming up, and the boy already threw a decent little hook.
Payne checked the counter behind the ball rack. The stranger was still there, watching him. He had shown up around the third frame, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Blue shirt, striped tie thickly knotted, cheap tan suit that needed pressing. Hair that might have been blond once, now turned the yellowish brown of a nicotine stain. A gum chewer with jaw muscles dancing, a face of angles and planes, a cold stare. A cop? Homicide, maybe.
Not a problem. Payne hadn’t killed anyone. He hadn’t even represented a murderer in a couple years. Bar brawlers, check bouncers, hookers from the Sepulveda Corridor. He could use a good murder trial right now. Or a personal injury case with fractures to weight-bearing bones. Even a nasty divorce would do. Lacking any decent cases, bowling alone on a weekday morning provided a break from bill collectors and anger management classes.
Payne hoisted his Hammer Road Hawg from the ball return and settled into his stance. Sensing movement, he glanced over his shoulder. Wrinkled Suit was headed his way. Payne considered challenging the guy to three games at 10 bucks a pin.
“Morning, J. Atticus Payne.”
Keeping the ball at hip level, Payne turned to face the man. “Jimmy. Jimmy Payne.”
“Your Bar card says ‘J. Atticus.’”
“My parents were hoping I’d grow up to be Gregory Peck.”
“Nah. They named you ‘James Andrew.’ You changed it. Not legally, of course. Just made it up and put it on your driver’s license, which also says you’re six feet tall when you’re really five-eleven. You make up a lot of shit.”
Grinning now, gotcha. Like he was Sherlock Fucking Holmes.
“Some people think Atticus fits,” Payne said, thinking of his ex-wife Sharon.
“What slimeball you gonna walk today, Atticus?”
That was before she started calling him “the respondent.” When Sharon divorced him, her bill of particulars included his reputation for sleazy behavior.
“Respondent has engaged in a pattern of professional activity that is a source of embarrassment to Petitioner, a police officer.”
If he’d been different, Payne wondered, if he’d made more money and been more respectable, if he’d lunched at the California Club instead of Hooters, would Sharon still be his wife?
Nah, that wasn’t the issue.
“You weren’t here for me when I needed you, Jimmy.”
“Why do you lie so much?” Wrinkled Suit asked.
Payne shrugged. “I’m a lawyer.”
“You rolled a baby split in the third frame. The three-ten. Very make-able. But you hit the reset, erased the score, and bowled again.”
“That a crime?”
“What kind of guy cheats when he’s bowling alone?”
“Maybe a guy who wants a second chance.”
“To do what? Tell a client to flee the jurisdiction?”
“Who the hell are you?”
The man reached into his jacket pocket and flipped open a vinyl wallet with an L.A.P.D. badge and photo I.D.
Payne read aloud. “‘Detective Eugene Rigney. Public Integrity Unit.’ Kinda wussy, isn’t it? I mean, compared to Robbery Homicide. Or SWAT.”
He turned toward the pins and took his four-step approach. A high back swing, a wrist-snapping release, a fluid follow through. The ball skidded on the oil, dug in, and hooked hard left into the pocket. A big mix, the clatter of rolling logs. The skinny neck of the six-pin kissed the ten, pushing it over like a wobbly drunk.
Strike! Take that, Mr. Public Integrity.
Rigney didn’t look impressed. “You gotta do something for me, Payne.”
“Bribe a judge.” The cop looked at his watch. “And you’ve got one hour to do it.”