In Judgment Cometh, the eighth Joe Dillard novel, Joe is hired to defend a man who was driving a pick-up, which when stopped for a traffic violation, was found to have containers with body-parts in the truck’s bed. They are the remains of a judge who had gone missing. As Joe explores the case, he comes to believe his client is not guilty. But then, who is kidnapping and killing judges all over the state of Tennessee? Joe and his friend, Sheriff Leon Bates, follow the case to a dark and life-threatening conclusion.
Judgment Cometh begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, ‘Judgment for an evil thing is many times delayed, for some a day or two, some a century or two, but it is sure as life, it is sure as death.’ Tell us your thoughts about that.
I ran across that quote and it struck me as being so appropriate for the beginning of this book. You can commit a terrible act and “get away with it” for some period of time—it might be a day, a year, or a century—but eventually, something will happen to right the universe, to get things back to where they were or should be before you committed this moral transgression.
Talking about moral transgressions, Joe Dillard is a very moral man, isn’t he?
He is, or I should say, he tries to be moral. His definition of morality may be different from some people’s. His morality isn’t based on religion, but on his own conscience. His has an individual morality, an inner code. He tends to look at things as being black or white with very little in between. When he finds himself in a gray area, he feels uncomfortable and may react violently, or even irrationally. When his moral code is violated, he may not always know how best to handle the situation, but he will handle it. He always acts to right a wrong.
When Joe Dillard meets with his new client, David Craig, he doesn’t want any details about the death of Judge Fletcher Bryant, the man whose body parts were found in the bed of David’s pick-up truck. Why is that?
At the outset of the representation, a lawyer wants to be very careful with a defendant. If the defendant admits to a crime and says, “I chopped the victim up and put his body parts in the back of the truck,” that limits the lawyer’s options going forward with the case. If the attorney knows the client has confessed to the murder, and puts him on the stand to testify, if the client lies on the stand, the attorney must abandon the case. The attorney is suborning perjury if he knowingly put a client on the stand and allows him to say he didn’t commit the crime. So, the attorney dances around the issue until he or she gets a sense of the facts and evidence and truly thinks the client did not commit the crime; then, he may ask the client whether or not he did so.
Judgment Cometh initially focuses on the police search of David Craig’s truck and the suspect’s interrogation. Tell us about the legal principles involved.
There are two kinds of searches involved in a case like this one.
One is an inventory search where the police impound a vehicle and go through it, logging everything in the car so the suspect can’t later claim things were stolen. Every police department has a procedure for an inventory search.
But there are limits to such a search. Let’s say there’s a closed container in the vehicle—a suitcase—they can inventory the item. But if they have reason to believe there’s something like contraband or something dangerous in that suitcase, they are permitted by law to open it. It’s a Fourth Amendment issue regarding unreasonable search and seizure. Different states interpret it differently. The police officer must have some reasonable and easily articulated suspicion that something inside the suitcase is going to be evidence of a crime. If there is no such reasonable suspicion, he cannot, by law, just open the suitcase.
In the book, the police officer was a rookie and testified that he opened the container on a hunch.
In a courtroom, a hunch doesn’t cut it. Evidence found under such circumstances comes under the exclusionary rule and is thrown out.
Joe Dillard is getting older and is now working with his son, Jack, and daughter-in-law, Charlie. Where do you see the series going?
I’ll probably put Joe in a less active role, more of a supervisory position. Jack and Charlie will handle most of the action from here on out. Joe will be the legal guru. It will be a way for me to revitalize the series by injecting these young lawyers into the stories.
You’ve written eight Joe Dillard novels. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a series?
The advantages of the Dillard novels are important. For me, writing about Joe is like putting on an old coat. It’s so comfortable knowing the main players, but it becomes a matter of trying to always keep it fresh.
The disadvantage is the level of vigilance I must maintain to ensure the series doesn’t get stale; that can happen if a writer gets lazy. The series is now a little darker than it was in the earlier books, but that’s because I’ve been in a darker place because my wife has been battling breast cancer. Some of my own anger and frustration has bled through into the novels.
In that vein, Scott, it’s clear Joe is going through some of the same difficulties you’ve been facing in your own life. He’s something of a fictional stand-in for you.
Yes, he is. I’ve talked to my wife, Kristy, about this. I asked if she minds my letting the world know she’s got metastatic breast cancer. More than a million and a half people are looking in on our personal lives through the books. Kristy’s thought and mine are the same: if we can help anyone understand and deal better with cancer, it’s worthwhile. It’s difficult and we want women and their families to know they’re not alone in the battle.
It’s also important for readers to see Joe’s wife, Caroline, survive and continue to thrive. She tries living as well as she possibly can. You can’t imagine how many e-mails I get from readers telling me, ‘Don’t you dare let Caroline die.’
Looking at your writing career, has your writing process changed over the years?
Not really. It’s all about discipline and getting into the chair at the same time each day; going to bed at the same time; getting plenty of exercise and staying mentally sharp. I don’t outline my books. I start with a small idea, and keep going. About half way through the book, I decide how I’m going to end the story. I build a foundation and then head for the end.
What, if anything, do you read when you’re busy writing a novel?
When I’m writing, I don’t read anything other than research. If I were to read Dennis Lehane when I’m writing, I’d start writing like he does. That goes for any other author. If I read them while I’m actively writing, I’ll find myself subconsciously mimicking them. While I’m writing, I don’t read. In between novels, I read voraciously.
Speaking of voracious reading, which authors do you enjoy reading?
Dennis Lehane is one. I love reading Mike Royko’s columns. I read Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. As for reading genre fiction, I love John Grisham’s novels as well as all kinds of thrillers.
What’s coming next from Scott Pratt?
I contracted to write a trilogy for Thomas & Mercer. It’s called Justice Burning. It’s something of a Breaking Bad lawyer novel where something bad happens to an attorney who then goes off the deep end.
Congratulations on writing Judgment Cometh, another gripping novel putting you in the company of John Grisham, Steve Martini, John Lescroart, and Scott Turow.