I am reprinting the interview-based feature here for your information (since unless you are a Kiwi lawyer, judge or politician, you're unlikely to have access to the print version of NZLawyer magazine - and the review section articles aren't placed online).
Gimenez was a very polite, down-to-earth guy, with a mild Texan accent. He loves sports, his family, law, and writing. I interviewed him by phone (he lives near Fort Worth). I enjoyed his latest book THE ACCUSED, and I'm looking forward to reading some of his earlier work too. He has a good knack for legal thrillers, upturning a few cliches (e.g. the out-to-screw-everyone prosecutor), and creating a page-turning plot.
I hope you enjoy this feature.
Atticus Finch, that fictional ideal of a lawyer (and perhaps of a human being), has in many ways had some serious influence on Texan lawyer Mark Gimenez’s life. The small-town Alabama attorney at the centre of one-shot novelist Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird – which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary earlier this month – has been an inspiration for both of Gimenez’s careers: lawyer, and now acclaimed thriller writer. His soft Southern drawl resonating down the phone line from his home outside of Fort Worth, Gimenez says To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book he remembers reading and really loving. “That book inspired me since I first read it when I was 14 or 15, and I’ve probably read it a dozen times since.”
Gimenez has now written five novels himself, all legal thrillers. His latest, The Accused, was published in New Zealand earlier this year, and marks the return of the lawyer-hero from his acclaimed 2005 debut, The Colour of Law. In The Accused, former big-money corporate lawyer A. Scott Fenney receives a devastating phone call from his ex-wife Rebecca; she’s been arrested for the brutal murder of her boyfriend, the club golf pro turned PGA star she abandoned Fenney and their daughter for years ago. Can Fenney defend the woman who betrayed him? Can he find a way to put aside his still conflicted feelings and try to save his ex-wife from life in prison?
Gimenez, himself a former partner at a big Dallas firm who now fills his working life with commercial, property, and tax law on a project basis (writing thrillers in between big legal projects), admits A. Scott Fenney’s first outing in The Colour of Law was a little bit of an homage to his all-time favourite book, both in terms of basic themes and plot, and the name and traits of its hero. “I worked with a lot of names to come up with A. Scott Fenney,” says Gimenez. “I wanted the name to have a similar rhythm and sound of Atticus Finch.”
A little bit like Finch, who “does wills and things like that and gets appointed to do the criminal case”, in The Colour of Law, Fenney is a commercial lawyer who finds himself appointed by the Court to defend a black defendant in a serious criminal trial – a heroin-addicted hooker accused of murdering the son of a wealthy Texas senator and presidential hopeful. The idea of a commercial lawyer being appointed to represent a criminal defendant may seem bizarre to many lawyers, especially those coming from jurisdictions that have public defenders, but it was in fact quite common in Dallas until fairly recently, says Gimenez. He had such a situation during his days with the big Dallas firm. “I was appointed to represent a woman in a criminal case, and so I went through that process, which of course you’re always worried, ‘My God, is she getting competent counsel? I’m not a criminal defence lawyer’, but I mean, that’s how it was done. So [years later] when I decided to write The Colour of Law, that’s exactly the situation I have, a commercial lawyer is appointed by the Federal Court to represent this indigent criminal defendant.”
Like Finch’s kids, Jem and Scout, Gimenez grew up in a small Southern town – in his case La Marque, Texas (population: 13,700) – but says he never seriously considered becoming a lawyer until he was accepted to several prestigious law schools and his college professors told him “people die to go to those law schools, you have to go”. He ended up earning his JD degree at Notre Dame. “I didn’t know what being a lawyer was about, I had no concept,” he says with a laugh. “When I walked onto the Notre Dame campus I’d never met a lawyer. The only lawyer that I sort of knew was Atticus Finch, and my idea was that I would come back and become a small-town lawyer and a small-time judge, live an Atticus Finch-type life.”
Instead, the chance to more quickly pay off his hefty student loans led to a different legal career at a giant commercial firm (perhaps a fairly recognisable situation for many Kiwi lawyers). “You know, I thought, ‘I’m going to go to this big law firm for just a few years, pay off my debts, and then I’m going back to Hill Country to a small-town’,” says Gimenez with a chuckle. “And of course, once you get going, and you’ve got clients, and you start down a path...”
Gimenez rose through to partner at his large Dallas firm (as an aside, Dallas has approximately twice as many lawyers as the entire New Zealand profession), before eventually heading out on his own. He had started writing some (unpublished) novels near the end of his time at the big Dallas firm, but it wasn’t until his son brought a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird home from school that everything clicked, and The Colour of Law was born. The family were talking about Harper Lee’s book at dinner, and Gimenez’s son asked whether such a situation could happen today – could an innocent person go to prison just because he’s black?
“I remember saying, ‘Well, he would if he’s poor’,” says Gimenez. “It’s the same for a poor person of any colour; a black person, a brown person, a white person. A poor person will go to prison and a rich person will go home. I remember saying ‘the colour of law today is not black and white, it’s green’. When I said that, I thought ‘that’s a story’.” It took Gimenez seven or eight months to write The Colour of Law, six months to find an agent, and only two days to sell it to a publisher. “It was astounding,” he admits. Acclaim quickly followed (unsurprisingly, Gimenez has been favourably compared to the likes of John Grisham), and his writing career took off.
As his global readership has grown, the down-to-earth Texan has found himself fielding complimentary emails from the likes of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, hearing about Bill Clinton giving New York diners a “you’ve got to read this guy” recommendation about his books, meeting the Governor of Texas at a literary event and finding out he’d stayed up late reading The Colour of Law the night before, and even visiting Judge Joyce’s class at Auckland Law School on his last visit to New Zealand in 2008. There has also been talk of making one or more of his books into movies. But despite such success, Gimenez says he has no plans to retire from the law any time soon. “I just closed a ranch deal on Thursday – that sounds like such a Texas deal, doesn’t it? I still practice, and you know, I probably always will. I’ve got clients I’ve had for a long time, and I wouldn’t abandon them.”
A man of principle – just like Atticus Finch.
What do you think of my feature article? Of Gimenez's comments? Have you read any of his legal thrillers? Do you like courtroom thrillers, in books or on TV/film? Please share your thoughts and comments.