A Life of Crime (the Perfectly Legal Kind)

John Lescroart became an “overnight” success at 45, and the Davis author has since published 19 New York Times best-selling legal thrillers, with his 30th novel due out in late March. Meet the man with his ink-stained finger on the pulse of American crime stories.
John Lescroart
(Photo by Max Whittaker)

 

T Take a look at The New York Times paperback best-seller list from Aug. 27, 1995 , and in the top 10 slots for fiction, you’ll recognize household names like Stephen King at No. 2, Tom Clancy at No. 5, Barbara Taylor Bradford at No. 6 and John Grisham at No. 7. But at No. 8, you’ll spot a newcomer on the list with a name that inspires as many tongue twists as plot twists—John Lescroart. He was born in Houston and grew up in San Mateo County, but the last name’s French and pronounced less-kwah (or “the opposite of more-kwah,” as it says on the frequently-asked-questions page of his website).

The 13th Juror was the name of the book that landed the Davis author among such esteemed company that week. But even with a New York Times best-seller under his belt, he still couldn’t quit his day job as a typist. It’s quite a story, and we’re going to hear him tell it. Meanwhile, you can be sure that Lescroart’s legions of readers are eagerly awaiting his 30th published novel—The Missing Piece— due out on March 29. It will be the 19th title to feature an irascible yet lovable character named Dismas Hardy, who shot to fame nearly 30 years ago, when The 13th Juror put Lescroart on America’s must-read map. Remember appointment TV—when you made room in your life for The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad on Sunday nights? Now imagine getting a new installment of your favorite fictional universe only about once a year for three decades. That long, slow-burning fandom is what makes Lescroart so enduring, along with the fact that at 74, he’s as fresh on the page as ever.

Nyt 1995 Best Sellers

(Image from The New York Times. © 2022 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved. Used Under License.)

San Francisco magazine once touted Lescroart as “the West Coast John Grisham.” In 2005, The Washington Post was even more effusive, calling Lescroart’s The Motive, “a smashing legal thriller that surpasses anything Grisham ever wrote”—a catalog that by then already included blockbuster-books-turned-films like The Pelican Brief, The Firm and A Time to Kill. And sure, everyone loves Grisham—his books are each like a big vacation you take to an exotic locale. But Lescroart’s series of novels starring San Francisco defense attorney Hardy and an ever-growing band of not-so-merry cohorts are books you live in. They’re hard-boiled and hard-bitten, yes, but there’s a Velveteen Rabbit element to how soothingly familiar these broken, seedy characters are, with warm hearts beating under their gritty exteriors. They inspire a fearsome loyalty in his cadre of admirers, which include some heavy hitters in the profession.

In his books, “you really get to see a family and friends through decades,” says the venerated spy novelist Gayle Lynds, who tapped Lescroart to become a founding member of the International Thriller Writers organization in 2004. “You know when you’re watching a marvelous ballet performance and they’re light as feathers, pirouetting and leaping? Well, that’s what John does. He makes it look easy, and people don’t realize the level of talent and intelligence and creativity that goes into it. He’s very rare.”

If Lescroart were a fictional character inhabiting his own world, it’s easy to imagine that he’d research the right words with which to pepper Hardy’s closing arguments by schmoozing city prosecutors over martini lunches in a private, velvet-curtained booth at Sam’s Grill, then slip on a trench coat and fedora, and return home to an apartment on Russian Hill with a view of the bay. Turns out that—except for the fedora—that’s all real. Lescroart keeps a pied-à-terre in San Francisco just so he can meet up with his secret weapon: former S.F. assistant district attorney Al Giannini, an old high school pal and Lescroart’s co-conspirator in plotting out the legal action over plates of petrale sole in capers and butter.

“I try to be the legal guardrail—you know, to keep him from doing the stupid stuff that you see on television,” Giannini says, cracking wise like a noir character himself. “We both take it as a point of pride that nothing happens in any of his books that could not have happened in a courtroom.”

Lescroart’s courtroom dialogues sizzle accordingly, but his San Francisco is foggy and moody, as is his hero. When we first meet Hardy in Dead Irish, he’s at home in his Victorian house, mourning the death of his young son and musing like a modern-day Sam Spade, wearing dirty corduroys and dusting his fossil collection.

When we recently met up with Lescroart himself, however, he was crisply dressed, incredibly open and, well, downright sunny. He spends his days writing prolifically and largely angst-free at a sweet, buttercup-yellow house in Old North Davis (with an actual white picket fence) that he uses as his office. It seems that it takes quite a bit of sweetness and light in life to venture into the dark fictional worlds that he inhabits on a daily basis.

In fact, he serves as chief cook and bottle washer to a very merry band of fellow local genre novelists. There is, apparently, much frivolity and silliness involved.

Missing Piece Cover

(Image of The Missing Piece Cover, Courtesy of Atria Books)

“He has these famous book launches at the Odd Fellows hall where he sings with a band and signs books,” says the Davis-based author Catriona McPherson, a transplant from Scotland whose mysteries are as cozy as her lilting brogue. She tells a story about riding in an elevator at a conference with two best-selling authors who wouldn’t deign to speak to her—until John swooped in and included her in the conversation. Those writers, she says, can’t hold a candle to Lescroart on the page either. “They’re not digging deep, they’re not cracking the rib cage and putting their beating heart onto the keyboard,” she says. “But with John, each time you crack a new novel [of his], you know you’re in for a treat. You’re not going to be able to read with half your attention, because he could never write with half his attention.”

As his 30th novel, The Missing Piece is a milestone book for Lescroart. And with a complex Swiss-watch plot involving murder, DNA exoneration, revenge and yet more murder, it would read equally well as a series installment or stand-alone novel, making it an ideal first point of contact for a whole new crop of readers. The book has already received the highly coveted “star” from both Publishers Weekly (PW) and Kirkus Reviews—the two most influential industry publications that reserve starred reviews for only a small percentage of their critiques.

The result: Likely more bookstore displays than usual, an almost surefire hit, and—if the stars align—maybe even that ever-elusive No. 1 spot on The New York Times list. (The highest he has ranked to date is No. 4, with The First Law on Feb. 16, 2003—four spots above Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame, and just a few slots below Alice Sebold’s blockbuster The Lovely Bones at No. 1).

But if 30 years ago, you had asked the then 44-year-old typist-for-hire if such an illustrious career were in the cards, he would’ve laughed you out of town. Why? Because becoming a successful novelist seemed precisely as attainable as becoming, say, a movie star, or a multi-medaling Olympian, or a member of the Avengers.

And of course, there’s his hard-to-pronounce last name. But who knows? Novel No. 30 might finally be the one that sees the name John Lescroart rolling off our tongues as effortlessly as Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan.

*****

This interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity from several conversations that took place in December 2021.

You are nothing like Dismas Hardy. Or rather, he is nothing like you.

Well, I’ve never been a marine, never been a cop, never been a lawyer, never even went to law school. I’m just an English nerd.

When did you first consider becoming a writer?

I was in the eighth grade and our teacher assigned a creative writing essay on the topic, “What is democracy?” So I wrote three pretty naive pages. And evidently, she loved it because she gave me an A+ and went down to the Redwood City Tribune and said, “You’ve got to publish this.” And they did. It was like this world opened up.

The first book I wrote in college [at UC Berkeley] was called No Promise. And I loved Sherlock Holmes, so after that, I started a Sherlock Holmes story just to see if I could sustain a book-length work that somebody actually wanted to read. Because nobody wanted to read No Promise. So I sent Son of Holmes out to a couple of places. The whole thing was just about chasing the elusive butterfly of prose.

Author John Lescroart Walking in his Davis Office

John Lescroart, photographed here in his Davis office on Dec. 7, writes at his standing desk about half the time. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Then you took a bit of a detour.

I was a musician for a long time. That was more lucrative than writing because I could actually get a gig doing it. I had a band in the Bay Area called Johnny Capo and His Real Good Band, and that’s what I did until I was 30, aside from my day job, which was with the phone company. Then I got a job as advertising director with Guitar Player magazine, and I started writing Sunburn [which would become Lescroart’s first published novel].

You won an award for Sunburn before it was even published, didn’t you?

I won the Joseph Henry Jackson award. [The recognition, named for the late literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, honors up-and-coming writers in Northern California.] It gave me a lot of confidence. That was in 1978. The book was published in 1981 and sold around 1,000 copies, I think. Then I started another one, which was the first one that had Dismas Hardy in it. I just loved the name. Dismas was the “good thief” [who repented as he was crucified] next to Jesus. And he turns out to be the patron saint of thieves.

Which makes Dismas the perfect name for a crusading defense attorney.

I didn’t even know that he would become one when I named him! He’s a guy that kind of showed up one day, but by that time, I’d left the Bay Area, moved down to Los Angeles, decided to write another novel, still looking for the key.

I heard you earned a living for a while as a game show contestant down there. Is that true?

I was on Blank Check, another one called Tic-Tac-Dough, and The Joker’s Wild a couple of times. I won money, and they asked me to come back and play some games that they were inventing on the set.

What was your day job then?

I went to a temp agency—I type 120 words per minute. So I got a job the first day at The Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where I wrote and edited a monthly newsletter. I stayed there for four years, and wrote a couple more books. Nothing happened. I tried to get relationships going with editors who said, “This is nice, but it’s not going to be publishable.”

I decided to give up. I was 34. My wife Lisa was finishing up her architectural degree in Virginia, so I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, to be with her. I handed out a little postcard that said, “Good help is hard to find. Published novelist can type 120 wpm. I’ll be your guy.” After my wife got her master’s degree in architecture, we decided to go to Europe. We lived in Santorini, Greece. Then [people were saying] that Americans in Greece should get the hell out because of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro [cruise ship] in the Mediterranean, so we flew home.

We landed in New York and my wife’s sister picked us up at the airport. She had been picking up our mail, and she said, “You got a book deal. Donald I. Fine wants to publish your Sherlock Holmes book.” A woman who was related to the boss at my wife’s firm wanted to be a literary agent, and she had sent it out to New York [publishers on my behalf].

Donald I. Fine was the publisher who discovered blockbuster novelists Ken Follett and Elmore Leonard. Not bad.

The money was ridiculously low, but I said, “Shoot, I’m just going to go to L.A. now that I’ve got a book coming out. I might get a movie deal.” So we went to L.A. I got a day job at a law firm in Century City as a word processor.

Then Dismas Hardy started becoming real. For the next year or two, I was getting up at 5:30 in the morning—we had a couple of kids by then—and I would write from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., then I went in and did my typing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then [after work], I stayed downtown, typing piecemeal at [other] law firms for whatever I could get per hour. I was doing three full-time jobs.

Donald Fine loved Dead Irish—the first Dismas Hardy book. It was nominated for the Shamus Award [from The Private Eye Writers of America], and Fine wanted a second one. So here I am now, 41 years old. It’s 1989.

Something tells me fate is about to intervene, the way you just said that.

I went to Seal Beach [in Orange County] one Sunday with my wife and some friends. I was an avid body surfer, so I went body surfing. I woke up not feeling very good. I was hallucinating crazily, throwing up. By 2 o’clock in the morning, Lisa packed up our 19-month-old and 5-month-old and took us down to the emergency room. The doctor said, “He’s got spinal meningitis and he’s going to die in the next two hours.”

I went into a coma for 11 days. And that was that. I came out and my galleys for The Vig [the second Dismas Hardy book] were waiting for me.

Is that how you came to a turning point?

With the after-effects of the meningitis— both physical and psychological—I was really not very happy. I had a migraine that lasted for a year. Luckily, I had a sabbatical coming up, after six years [on the job as a typist at the law firm]. So we decided we’d come up to Davis in 1991 to look around. Lisa and three of my siblings had gone to UC Davis.

I’ve read articles that say this was when you became a full-time writer, but I know there’s more to the story.

Yes. I was a full-time caregiver for the kids—then 2 and 3 years old—for about two more years. Lisa and I decided whoever got a job first was going to be the moneymaker. Lisa is an architect and found a part-time job right away. I was [writing] behind a shoji screen in our bedroom from 8 a.m. to noon, religiously, 10 pages a day. Period. That turned out to be Hard Evidence, which was the first of the legal thrillers.

Because Hardy was acting as a private investigator in the first two, and never set foot in a courtroom, those books were thrillers, but not legal thrillers. Seems like the new genre really clicked for you.

Donald Fine offered me $10,000 for it. Then he sold the book in Germany for six figures, and the same day he sold it in Japan for $60,000, and he sold it a couple of other places. He was notoriously the cheapest guy and the worst payer in New York.

So The 13th Juror came out to tremendous reviews, selling something like 25,000 copies a week. By then, I’d written two books in the two years since I’d been in Davis.

John Lescroart's Multiple Books

Lescroart’s books have been translated into 22 languages, including these in French, Dutch, Italian and others. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

What did it feel like to be on the same list as John Grisham, Stephen King and Tom Clancy?

Well, this sounds unreal, but I was not even particularly aware of the best-seller list. None of my books had come close at all, and suddenly I was out to dinner with my publisher [in 1995] and they had a telegram delivered to my table saying that I had hit the list at No. 10 with The 13th Juror. And up until that time, I’d never thought about making the list at all.

Dell Books—the publisher of such genre authors as Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson—offered $300,000 for the paperback rights to The 13th Juror, but because the sale went through Fine, I understand you saw none of it. What did you decide to do?

Yeah, there was a lot of money being thrown around. I said, “You know, I would like to get some of this because I think I’m earning it.” So I wrote A Certain Justice, and personally negotiated with Don Fine to get the money all at once. He gave me the money in a cashier’s check—$250,000. I decided, “I’ll write another book and I’ll get a new agent.”

Which you did. You ended up with [No. 1 New York Times best-selling author] Jonathan Kellerman’s agent, so a heavy hitter. Is this where things turned the corner?

Dell Books stepped up. I got a nice couple-million-dollar, multi-book deal, and from then on, it’s been cake. It’s been like 20 books in 20 years.

Sounds like moving to Davis was the key to finding some kind of balance.

Davis is a great town. I lived in L.A., I lived in San Francisco four different times, but this just felt like home from the first time we got here. Davis is very welcoming, and there was a whole book culture here. I met a lot of the other writers in town, and we all get along—Catriona McPherson, Eileen Rendahl, Max Byrd, Spring Warren. [Pre-pandemic] we’d sometimes meet on Fridays at Tres Hermanas for cocktails.

Tight plotting aside, what your readers look forward to most in a new book are the details, like what kind of outlandish blue plate special Lou the Greek is serving across the street from the courthouse, or what Hardy is cooking at home. I actually learned how to correctly season a cast iron pan from reading your books. How much of these details are based on real places and experiences?

The Little Shamrock [bar in San Francisco] is real. When we first meet Hardy, in Dead Irish, he’s going over to The Little Shamrock. And we learn that he’s a bartender there, and I was a bartender there. That’s how you kind of build your universe, by building pieces of it at a time. Lou the Greek is my invention. What’s going to be the dish of the day? Kung pao lamb chops? It’s fun. Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating when that’s my day’s work, when I’m writing the Lou the Greek scene, or I have the black [cast iron] pan scene. I love that stuff. I have a black pan at home that I use almost every day.

You and Dismas now have children about the same age. His daughter Rebecca is in her 30s and a lawyer. Do your kids read the books, and how do they feel about you having characters almost as old as they are? Has art imitated life or vice versa? 

Well, my son and my daughter are both lawyers. Jack is 33 and a public defender in Sacramento. Justine is 34, and she’s in construction litigation [in Davis]. Justine likes to wait until they come out, but Jack is like my archivist. I’ll be sitting here writing and it’s a lot easier to just call up Jack and ask, “Jack, did Rebecca have a boyfriend in The 13th Juror?” Or “What’s Wes Farrell’s drink at the Shamrock?” Jack knows.

Your friend C.J. Box has two TV series in production based on his mystery series. Has Hollywood ever come calling, and who would you want to play Hardy?

This changes every couple of years, but I love Timothy Olyphant for Hardy. Before that, it was Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights. And Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix films optioned the Abe Glitsky series five or six years ago, but that lapsed. He took a shot at it, but [the studio] dropped it. A writer [currently] has an option on Hardy, and she’s written a spec script. She’s really gung-ho and good. We’re still hoping it happens, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t.

Johnlescroart 030

The author has sold more than 12 million books in 75 countries. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Your peers in the business seem to think that as successful as you are, it’s puzzling that you aren’t even more so, and speculate that you’re not a household name merely because your name is difficult to pronounce. What do you think?

I showed up [once] at this place in Illinois. I think it was one of the early Borders bookstores. I don’t remember what book it was [that I was promoting], but I had already had like seven or eight best-sellers. It wasn’t like I was an unknown. So I go in, and there are three tables full of books, and I’m going, “That’s a nice turnout.” But all the books are actually John le Carré books. [Laughs]

Have you started your next book?

I have 40 pages [of one book] right here, then I have another book of about 10 pages. It’s definitely Dismas Hardy. I love the guy, I love writing about him, and I love all the ancillary people as well.

But then you start really wondering how real the universe is that you’ve created. That’s what’s a little bit daunting about starting a new book when our world has been so turned upside down. Do you go with the Trump-Biden issue? The toxic political things going on in our country? I honestly don’t know what to do. I don’t want to write a non-authoritative version of the universe, because this stuff is real.

It might be kind of nice, as a reader, to visit a parallel universe that goes on without all this stuff.

Wouldn’t it be nice? But what if it loses credibility? “What, you’re writing this book and there’s no pandemic in it? John, are you kidding?” I’m finding it a little challenging, actually. That’s why I have two separate books and beginnings—I’m trying to find out which one I’m going to follow. [For one book], I’ve got 40 pages and it doesn’t really have much about the pandemic, and it doesn’t have much about the political party stories. Whereas the book that I just started to write last week—the one I’ve got like 10 pages on— Hardy is walking from his office to the Hall of Justice and stepping around all the homeless people. It’s just so tragic.

What part of it do I want to keep? I don’t know. So, you’ve hit a prolific writer in the middle of writer’s block. Then I just tell myself, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, right? Don’t let it happen.”

Regardless, The Missing Piece is still quite a milestone.

This is book 30. I don’t believe it. Considering I started making a living as a writer when I was 45, I feel lucky and grateful that I’ve gotten as far as I have. I’m not trying to get up the [best-seller] lists anymore, and it hasn’t been about the money for a long time. I’m just trying to write good books.