Interview with Garret Holms

1. Please summarize, without spoilers, your most recent book, or one forthcoming in the next year? If it is part of a series, please put the plot in series context?
My debut legal thriller Grant of Immunity is set in 1976, Los Angeles. Sarah Collins, a young mother of two, is brutally raped and murdered at the Hollywood Reservoir. For nineteen years, the murder remains unsolved and the case goes cold. In 1995, the streets of Los Angeles are being terrorized by Jake Babbage, a traffic cop who uses his position of power to rape and murder innocent women. On his way to court one day, Babbage sees Judge Daniel Hart. The two recognize each other, and the terrifying night of nineteen years ago comes back to haunt the highly respected judge. The aftermath of the encounter brings long-buried secrets to light and tests the moral fiber of Judge Hart, who has committed himself to protecting those victimized by the very crimes of which he is now accused.

Grant of Immunity is the first book in a series of novels that have a judge as the protagonist. These prospective books are not necessarily sequels and do not necessarily all have the same characters, nor are they precluded from the characters in the series.
2. What appeals to you about writing legal thrillers?
The courtroom is the best stage for a gut-wrenching thriller. It's where tempers fly and tensions flare. It is where the human condition is tested, the place where people unravel and try to become whole again as they defend their own versions of what they perceive to be the truth. I have always found it fascinating how a lone, dedicated defense attorney works to fight against enormous and powerful governmental and business entities, and how a single judicial ruling can dictate whether the accused will live free or die -- or spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

Oftentimes, when you read legal thrillers, lawyers and detectives are cast as leads while the judge is a secondary and somewhat elusive character. As a author in the legal thriller genre, I wanted to explore this essential figure in the judicial system with accuracy while showcasing the bare emotions that are often tucked away when one is in an authoritative position like that of a judge.

I enjoy creating well-rounded characters that transcend their respective titles or roles in a legal thriller. If the accused is someone the reader likes and identifies with, the tension and suspense becomes palpable. If the writer does his or her job effectively, the reader finds themselves unable to stop reading until the story reaches its inevitable climax and conclusion. This is the writing challenge I love: To construct an authentic set of events, including powerful courtroom scenes, that engage, entertain and educate the reader.
3. What do you think accounts for their popularity?
People have a natural interest in the courtroom, especially in cases where well-known or celebrity defendants are accused. The public often roots for the underdog, and wants to see the lawyers do their magic. Legal thrillers are fictionalized accounts of these same contests, where the best lawyers do decisive battles and the best cross-examination and investigation occurs.
4. Do you have legal experience, and if so, in the type of law you write about?
As a prosecutor and defense attorney, I’ve tried countless cases. I know the disappointment that comes with losing after weeks of going over how I would present the evidence. I’ve even obsessed about what I could have done to sway the outcome. I also know the joy of winning, and how it feels to go into the jury room after the triumphant verdict to speak to the jurors about their reaction to the evidence and see them applaud as you step into the room.

I’ve handled countless trials as a judge. I know what it’s like to have everyone in the coutroom watching your face as the evidence unfolds as well as the challenge of having to decide difficult legal questions quickly and correctly. The great responsibility involved in deciding whether to sentence a defendant to prison, or to life without the possibility of parole, or even to death is a major theme in my writing.
5. How hard is it to be accurate about the legal system and present an accessible narrative?
It is difficult because the legal system is based upon strict rules of evidence and sets uncompromising standards of ethical behavior. Sometimes authors, for storytelling purposes, overlook these rules, or are just plain ignorant of them. For example, a few years back there was popular movie where, during a criminal trial the defendant’s public defender and a member of the jury worked together to investigate and determine if the defendant was guilty. In the end, they determined the defendant was innocent and that the true murderer was . . . the judge! This is a great story with a profoundly surprising twist. However, the problem is that it could never happen in real life. The lawyer and juror were involved in obstructing justice and would likely face criminal charges as well as disbarment of the lawyer. In my view, this is the equivalent of an action movie where the hero outruns an explosion or of a horror movie when the coed goes back into the house even though she know the ax murderer waits inside.

My goal is to write a compelling and engrossing story that is consistent with the way our justice system works without the gimmicks.
6. Are there legal concepts that you find very hard to convey, or harder than others?
It can be challenging to convey certain legal concepts in a digestible way for the average Joe. If a plot depends upon a subtle legal theory, it must be presented in a way that the reader understands and is interested in. If done improperly, the book appears didactic and boring. If done correctly, the reader is engaged and finishes the novel with a sense that they learned something new and insightful about our criminal justice system.
7. What do you think the public’s biggest misconceptions about the legal system are, and how do you work to counter them?
Many people have fundamental and erroneous beliefs about the system. Some of them think that a good lawyer will do anything to win his or her case, legitimate or not, ethical or not, legal or not. Others believe that prosecutors are only concerned with winning their case, even if an innocent person is convicted and even executed. There are people that view judges as cold, aloof, impatient, rude, and punitive. They might assume that judges punish the innocent, are one dimensional, corrupt or have a different standard for the themselves than the rest of the public. There are people who view the police in a similar light.

I try to counter this by presenting a story where you have both good as well bad cops, careful as well as careless lawyers; caring as well as callus judges. I aim to develop stories that look inside these characters and demonstrate that guilt or innocence is not black or white, but shades of gray.
8. What’s surprised you the most about your experience with the law, and with writing legal thrillers
After years working in our criminal justice system, I still believe our system of justice is the best in the world. What surprised me is how difficult it was to translate everyday courtroom life into a riveting work of crime fiction.
9. Can you identify any trends in recent years- e.g. more prosecutors as leads, more defense attorneys, etc.?
There are many trends, beginning with classic mysteries where private persons solved murders using logic and common sense (Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie novels). There are the private detective stories, where the police aren’t smart enough to solve the crimes. Courtroom dramas came into vogue with Perry Mason. Then the seminal To Kill a Mockingbird. Since, the courtroom drama has flourished with Twelve Angry Men, Anatomy of a Murderer.

We are seeing more stories with both prosecutors and defense attorney protagonists. I’ve tried to present the best and the worst of police officers, of trial lawyers and of judges in Grant of Immunity.
Published 2015-03-31.
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