Legal thrillers depict Philadelphia
Tuesday, August 18th, 2009
Waking up with cotton-mouth, a splitting headache, and a mysterious tattoo on your chest – the name of a woman you've never met. It's all happening in Philadelphia. Today, in our summer series "Crime in the City" – Victor Carl, a Philadelphia defense attorney, is the main character in a series of legal thrillers by writer William Lashner.
Victor Carl is a guy who just can't get a leg up. He's a low-class lawyer with high ambitions. From his office he can see the spire of the Liberty Tower and he's literally in the shadow of the Comcast building. But he plies his trade at 23rd and Chestnut streets, above a big painted sign of an old shoe.
Lashner: Victor has always aspired to be in the towers of big law firms, but he never quite could make it – never good enough or had contacts – so I needed a place that was low and dumpy. And this is it – this is the building. I always thought that's the worst place for a lawyer to be, above the shoe repair store.
That is William Lashner, a best-selling crime novelist who created Victor Carl. Lashner grew up in Philadelphia, as did his father and his grandfather before him. He says he uses real Philadelphia locations because it's a lot easier than making things up.
Lashner: In a way Victor fits the city perfectly. We aspire to be the Paris of America, or like New York. But we're always just Philadelphia. We haven't realized it's good enough. If Victor walks out of his office to get a bite or buy a newspaper, where would he go? Generally I send him to the Wawa. The sound of Wawa…people in Detroit might think Wawa is an exotic thing, but you and I know it's just a Wawa. But I love the sound of it.
Lashner uses real Philadelphia crimes in his novels. As we walk past 2020 Walnut Street, he recounts the story of a man who was once arrested among stacks of used underpants he had bought from boys in the street. Lashner says he based a entire book on the 1997 Rabinowtiz murder, when a man strangled his wife so he could spend tens of thousands of dollars on a stripper at Delilah's named Summer. These are the raw materials of his stories.
Lashner: I read what's in the paper and use that to start something bigger. It ends up not looking like what really happened, cause I'm writing a novel…
This is my dad's old office, right here.
We're standing at 17th and Locust. This is where Lashner worked for 3 years as a lawyer with his father, while trying to sell his first novel. It's a location that has showed up in his fiction.
Lashner: It was an emotional place for me. The time I spent with my dad – when I was a lawyer he was the only partner I ever had – the only partner I ever wanted. It was a very intense time in my life, with him. It's an interesting experience – working with your dad.
Almost every block in Philadelphia is emotionally charged for Lashner. At 16th and Pine is the office where his grandfather ran a real estate company. Next door is the building where his brother was born. He played softball in a lawyer league a few blocks from there. He says Philadelphia works well because his Victor Carl can find the whole spectrum of criminal behavior.
Lashner: He can be comfortable in salons because he always wears a suit. What I've found in this city is if you put on a nice suit you can go anywhere. At the same time he hangs out in the rough parts of South Philadelphia, he goes to bars in the Northeast, he goes everywhere.
One place Lashner likes to use to the SS United States, that enormous cruise liner now sitting docked, gutted and rusting next to the Walt Whitman Bridge. A huge, crumbling symbol of grandiosity and decay.
Lashner has lived and worked as a lawyer in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. And he has sent Victor to cities around the world. But the two of them always comes back to Philadelphia.
Lashner: Philly has got everything – it's organized crime is not so big, but it's sort of goofy and ridiculous. It's has a jaunty kind of sleazyness. I don't know how to explain it.
After 7 novels with Victor Carl, Lashner abandoned his hero in his new book, in which he has created a new character – just as hapless, also living in Philadelphia.