23 January 2018

The Wound

Keenan Powell was born in Roswell, New Mexico, several years after certain out-of-towners visited. Her first artistic endeavor was drawing, which led to illustrating the original Dungeons and Dragons when still in high school.

A past winner of the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant, her publications include Criminal Law 101 in the June 2015 issue of The Writer magazine and several short stories. She writes the legal column, Ipso Facto, for the Guppies’ newsletter, First Draft, and blogs with the Mysteristas.

She lives and practices law in Anchorage, Alaska. When not writing or lawyering, she can be found riding her bike, hanging out with her Irish Wolfhound, studying the concert harp, or dinking around with oil paints.

— Leigh  

Karma and the Trial Lawyer
by Keenan Powell

My first job after law school was an associate with a formidable old trial lawyer.

In my very first jury trial, I sat second chair for her. Second chair is the young lawyer who sits beside lead counsel in court and doesn't speak. Second chair's job is to take notes and make sure that lead counsel has the exhibit she wants when she wants it.

The trial was a federal felony: a bank teller charged with embezzlement. On the last day of evidence, my boss told me I was doing the closing argument the next day. I was terrified. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I was convinced our client was innocent and that if I screwed up the closing, she could be wrongfully convicted. Not only that, I had never seen a closing in real life before. In the wee hours of the next morning, I dreamt the entire argument, got up, and wrote it down. That morning, I delivered the argument I had dreamt. The jury came back with an acquittal in three hours.

    Maeve Malloy debuts in Deadly Solution. After drinking sidelined her Public Defender career, attorney Maeve defends an Aleut Indian accused of beating another homeless man to death. With no witnesses and a client with bruised knuckles who claims no knowledge of the murder, the outlook appears hopeless.
    The unfolding case brings Maeve and her investigator Tom Sinclair to urban homeless camps, rough roadside bars, and biker gangs. Maeve finds more than enough people with motives for wanting the victim dead.
    The case takes an unexpected twist when the forensic pathology report shows the victim died of a prescription overdose, not a beating. Maeve and Tom link the murder to a string of earlier deaths among the homeless that had been ruled ‘natural causes.’
That was encouraging.

After knocking around for a few years doing different kinds of law, I found myself associated with another sole practitioner, a venerated criminal defense attorney. I had decided criminal defense was what I wanted to do: stand in front of a jury like Clarence Darrow and fight the good fight for truth and justice, just as I had for that bank teller.

One day, my boss told me that he and another criminal defense lawyer were taking me out to dinner that Friday. Oh, my, I thought, I've hit the big time! I had visions of a steak dinner on linen overlooking the glittering waters of Cook Inlet. Instead, they took me to pizza chain restaurant. I don't think those two guys even knew how to order, much less eat, a pizza. (I got the salad bar.)

As it turns out the purpose of the gathering was to warn me about karma, and it was a conversation that they didn't want overheard – which is why they took me to a virtually empty restaurant. (Later I checked the restaurant's health rating. It wasn't good.)

The gist of their warning was: Sure, you feel good when you win. But sometimes, and it can happen to anyone, you can get an acquittal that results in a bad guy going free and then that bad guy does truly evil things. One of those attorneys had, in fact, obtained an acquittal of a murderer who went on to kill three more people including a woman and her child. (He was later found in a ditch.)

Decades later, an idea struck me for a legal mystery. I wrote and I wrote. In 2015, I won the William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic grant.

With the grant, I attended the Book Passages Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera where my pages were critiqued by a renowned author, who said, "Your protagonist must have a wound."

So, my protagonist, Maeve Malloy, got two wounds: a childhood event that spurred her into criminal defense, and then, while working at the public defender's office, a good trial result that leads to devastating consequences.

Maeve will make her first appearance in Deadly Solution (Level Best Books, 23 January, 2018).

— ❦ —


  1. Talk about being thrown into the fire on that first trial. Wow. Congratulations on the book, Keenan!

  2. I love that idea of the wound. I wrote a book, never published alas, in which one of the characters said "Everyone has scars. Some don't show." Then I went back and made sure all my main characters had one. Sometimes you get your best writing advice from your characters...

  3. Very best of luck with your novel. It sounds as if you have an excellent premise.

  4. Barb Goffman: No kidding! There are many stories about that particular lawyer. She's the one who wore a ballgown to court when, after having come to court wearing a tasteful pantsuit, the judge sent her home to dress in something more fitting of a person of her gender.

    Robert Lopresti: I love that line! And indeed, sometimes I do get the best advice from them.

    Janice Law: Thank you so much! My muse beat me over the head with this book until I finally started writing it.

  5. "Your protagonist must have a wound." - Amen.
    Congratulations on your novel, and I look forward to reading it.

  6. One of my Sisters in Crime mentors always talks about the "hole in the heart." I think about it constantly (but I'm not sure I always get it right).


  7. A very interesting column & I will definitely read your book, Keenan!

  8. Eve Fisher: Hallie Ephron insisted on the wound. I owe so much to the writers who generously give of their time at writers conferences.

    Mary Sutton: I had resisted at first, but that's what the character arc is really all about, isn't it? Why we do what we do to fix something we can't fix.

    Elizabeth: Thanks. I hope you enjoy the book. The story is near and dear to my heart.

  9. Down here in the Lower 48 (or even Melodie's Ontario), crime-plotting in Italian restaurants sometimes ends differently.

    Keenan, as you know, I enjoyed your article. Your comment about wearing the ballgown struck me.

    When I worked for IBM in NYC, our young boss– a woman– objected to the pantsuit one of my colleagues wore, the tunic over trousers type. Patricia stepped into the restroom. Moments later she reappeared wearing just the tunic and pantyhose. That satisfied our boss. Did I mention our manager was a lady?

    Best of well-deserved luck with the book!

  10. Leigh: LOL! Sure, come to work dress as a Rockette, but don't dare cover those legs!

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Great column, Keenan! Looking forward to reading the book--congratulations!

    Leigh, those IBM bosses could be a little difficult at times . . .

  12. John Floyd: Thanks! Hope you enjoy the book.

  13. An Italian pizza joint not conducive to one's health!

    Sounds like an interesting book. I'll check it out.

  14. Anonymous: I had the salad bar. Hope you like the book!

  15. Great post, Keenan! I'm picturing that dinner and the distinct possibility of pizza crumbs in the beard of at least one of the attorneys you were with. ;)

    Congratulations on the publication of Deadly Solution! I'm so happy for you, my friend.

  16. Jenni Legate: thanks! You should have seen those two guys. It was apparent neither of them had been in a fast-food pizza place in all their lives; they didn't know how to act. Thanks for all the support.

  17. Great stories! Nice to meet you and learn about your writing.

  18. Fascinating background. A story that long in the making has to be something indeed!


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