Phillip Margolin: The Associate

Write what you know. That's what fiction writing students are told when they have a story due but can't think of a topic. The topic might seem boring to you, but the authenticity you bring to it

Aug 23, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Write what you know. That's what fiction writing students are told when they have a story due but can't think of a topic. The topic might seem boring to you, but the authenticity you bring to it will pull readers in.

Author Phillip Margolin does just that, only what he knows results in crime-filled mysteries.

When Margolin started reading crime thrillers in seventh grade, they inspired him to become a criminal defense attorney and to eventually pick up writing as a hobby. While studying for his law degree, he began working on a novel. He never expected a best-seller, he just enjoyed it. But as his law career progressed, his writing career became his other quest.

Margolin published his first book in 1978. Since then he's made time in a busy schedule to write seven novels and, since 1996, has been focusing on writing full-time.

His firsthand knowledge of the courts is coupled with complex crimes that play out as mysteries. Currently Margolin is touring to promote his latest crime thriller, The Associate.

Daniel Ames is an associate working at Portland's most prestigious law firm. He got there the hard way: never knew his father, ran away from his mother at 17, paid his own way through law school but is surrounded by lawyers buoyed by their family names.

His firm is representing a pharmaceutical company accused of selling a medication that causes birth defects when taken by pregnant women. Ames gets roped into searching roughly 4,000 documents in five boxes of discovery for the case in under 12 hours. The favor ends up threatening his life.

The case is weak as it stands, but one letter, buried in the boxes, will break it open. Although he doesn't see it, opposing counsel does. Ames gets fired and later fired at. The plot quickly grows too twisted to summarize coherently.

The story follows Ames closely for the first half of the book, but when he ends up in jail the action breaks away from him. Narrative moves to Kate, another associate at his firm, who is chasing a lead in Desert Grove, Ariz., for the pharmaceutical case, which might also help Ames. Short chapters jump around adding to the mystery until it reaches its inevitable breaking point and spills the hows and whys.

A lot of things about this story are familiar. There's the dumbing down of legalese with just enough unfamiliar words to make it seem real. Also, the unbelievable lengths people will go to win their case, meaning lots of murder. What really propels the book by constantly surprising the reader is the plot.

The story tangles its way across the country. Margolin brings in lots of people and places and lets the reader wrestle in his or her mind with the possible connections until the story picks them up again. Occasionally, he waits too long, leaving little trace of a character's introductory scene in the reader's memory.

Even the most prominent characters are hard to keep straight at times: A lot of older, white male lawyers and just a few younger characters like Ames and Kate. Which leads to the inevitable inclusion of sexual tension. Margolin is smart in never letting romance or sex take over the story. Relations between males and females provide the necessary impetus for some actions without requiring the details.

When Ames is released from jail, he ends up staying at Kate's house because his house has been trashed by the cops and as a safety measure because he is still in danger. Though it's clear the threatening situation has allowed them to see each other differently, and their closeness gives them opportunity to act on it, they are aptly caught up in clearing Ames of his charges and not their newfound attraction.

The fast-paced book races toward its conclusion. Margolin takes both parts of his book writing genre very seriously. The Associate piles up the crimes while turning enough corners to pack in the thrills.

Philip Margolin discusses and signs The Associate at 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.