Neil White interview: On the law and legal thrillers

From the Shadows by Neil Mitchell book review

Last week, I posted my review of From the Shadows, a legal thriller that had more to do outside the courtroom than in it, but nonetheless offered up the intrepid pairing of Dan and Jayne, a former client turned PI. They’re share an intense bond, and in this the first book they’re just figuring themselves out as their relationship begins to evolve. However, this is intertwined with a complicated case with a client that doesn’t seem to want to help himself.

Neil White, who is a lawyer himself, answered some questions for me on Dan and Jayne, and shared the real life cases that influenced his creation of Jayne.

How would you describe Dan and Jayne in this book in one sentence to a reader?

The dogged defence lawyer and the fearless private investigator, fighting together for justice, whatever it costs.

Jayne’s background – from a domestic violence survivor to PI – is something I would love to know more about. Why did you choose this path for her?

The TV show from the seventies, Petrocelli, was the main inspiration. As a lawyer myself, I wanted to make my books have a greater legal feel and Petrocelli involved a defence lawyer who used an investigator who got involved in all the rough stuff, with Petrocelli doing the courtroom thing. Once I decided to have an investigator, I thought of using a grizzled ex-cop character but then realised it was a bit of a cliché. In wrestling with this, I thought it would be fun to use all the male PI clichés, a bit of a drinker, a bi chaotic, personally and romantically, a bit of a loner, but in a young woman.

In looking at Jayne’s backstory, I ended up falling back on a real-life murder case I prosecuted, and this gave me the reason why she is like she is: scared of emotions, because the last person she loved died from a stab wound she inflicted.

Given Dan and Jayne’s relationship and history, what is the most important thing you had to keep in mind when writing their evolving relationship?

To quote Stephen King, “it’s all about the story, dammit”. I wanted Dan and Jayne, when speaking of them as being a partnership, to be big parts of the book but not in any way that got in the path of the story. I did like the notion of sexual tension but equally of two people who like each other as friends, who enjoy each other’s company. There’s often something closer about a male-female friendship than a friendship between two men.

What was the most unexpectedly difficult thing of writing these two?

Achieving balance. As a criminal lawyer, it’s natural for me to think of Dan as the main hero (hey, if I can’t be the hero in my own book, there’s something wrong) but that isn’t necessarily how it is. Dan might do all the legal stuff but in reality it’s Jayne who gets all the physical stuff. She’s the action hero.

What’s the key to balancing your work as a criminal lawyer and author?

Neil White interview on From the ShadowsTime and energy and not forcing it.

I’m no longer a full-time criminal lawyer. I was a Senior Crown Prosecutor for eighteen years, and before that a defence solicitor, and during that time I wrote a number of books, but it was getting harder to combine the two because of fatigue. My schedule used to be that I’d come home from work and then spend every night writing and editing, fuelled on coffee and chocolate. That is only sustainable for so long. I got to the point where something had to give, and it was the law that gave.

I left the CPS in late 2015 and now work as a freelance solicitor, albeit I have only ever done prosecution work since 2015, appearing in court as and when required. The advantage is now that I can pick and choose, and am no longer bound by all the bureaucratic pressures. I go to court, do my cases, and go home.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that appearing in court and conducting trials is mentally tiring, so I accept now that if I have been in court, I try not to write. Do it if I feel it, but don’t force it. A tired mind doesn’t do good stuff.

Will you ever leave law to focus on your writing? Why or why not?

A hard one. I’ve been a published author since 2007, but if we’d met at a dinner party I would have introduced myself as a lawyer, not a writer. That is changing slightly now, because I do less law than I used to, but I do enjoy the law and I’m reluctant to walk away from it.

A lot will depend on how much time I spend doing writing-related things. I can fit the writing side of things around the law, or perhaps that should be the other way round, but a time may come when the writing-related things take over, like events and festivals. When a time comes when it’s harder to fit the law in, I’ll probably decide that’s it. I have to renew my Practising Certificate every November, as a solicitor, and that’s when I make the decision each year. I expect to be still practising as a solicitor in 2018.

If nothing else, it gets me out of the house, showered and shaved. If I have an extended writing-only run, I end up like Pig-pen from the Charlie Brown characters, leaving dust behind me as I walk and attracting flies.

I think I can get behind more of Jayne, the action hero, and Dan, the lawyer! What do you think? I love how he’s flipped the expectations of PIs with these characters, and Dan shows no hesitation in asking Jayne to do the action hero stuff. How will that evolve I wonder?

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