I recently learned the story behind the story of Sheldon Siegel’s thirteen critically-acclaimed, New York Times best-selling legal thrillers, featuring San Francisco attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Hernandez.
Sheldon is a retired attorney and all around good guy and mentor in the writing world. His latest in his series is Last Call, in which Mike Daley represents his cousin who stands accused of killing a police officer who also happens to be his cousin’s friend. It’s riveting. I read it in one night. Like the rest of the series.
The video interview is edited and summarized below.
Welcome, Sheldon. First of all, what drew you to your co-protagonists?
Well, the stories are about Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez, who are, in the early books, small time criminal defense attorneys. In the later books, they actually return to the public defender’s office where they met.
The initial idea for the stories was to write books about a couple of lawyers who are the people you would call if you got into serious trouble. You wouldn’t call them to balance your checkbook or run a fortune 100 company. But these are the people who you would have on at the top of your list if something really bad happened.
The stories are about murder trials, and crimes. But what they really are about are Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez and the world around them and how they deal with the chaos in the legal system.
They’re good people. You know, I’ve always said, if you write crime novels, at the heart of it, at least the protagonists should be people you like, people you trust, people you empathize with. So they’re the good people in the stories and everybody around them is pretty bad.
Between the beginning and the end of the book, they deal with all sorts of horrible problems. If things go well, they’ll make the world a little better and hopefully get to the right result in the story.
With the world as it is, we’re also interested in heroic personalities. These two are good guys, but they’re very, very human. It’s not like they’re wearing capes and boots. They’re easy to believe in as real life people.
I mean that was important to me. And that was kind of the concept of these books to begin with. You know, Mike Daley is a guy from the Sunset in San Francisco. His father was a cop. His mother was a homemaker. Rosie is from the Mission District and her dad was a carpenter, her mother was a homemaker. It’s about real people, in my mind. People from the neighborhood who are really smart and really good at what they do, but they aren’t superheroes.
Unlike a lot of legal thrillers, and I mean, I appreciate what goes on in the genre, but they’re not going to get into fights and run people over. They’re going to win in court and they’re going to do it fairly.
They actually do play pretty much straight by the rules and they’ll do what they need to do to represent their client.
That was kind of important to me. My books are not populated by superhero lawyers. I actually get mail from police officers and judges because they’re pretty good too.
You know, if you read the legal thriller courtroom drama genre, the cops are always crooked and the judges are always dumb, and the prosecutors are always very ambitious. In my books, they aren’t. Everybody’s basically good at their job. I can kind of let the court cases and the situations play out among people who respect the system.
Reading crime fiction, it’s possible to feel a little despairing about the state of the world.
And yet in your books, part of the hopeful feeling a reader gets is because the characters are doing their best and are capable. In maybe the very first court scene in Last Call you describe all the legal people involved, including the police officers. You describe a judge with a long distinguished career on the bench. You describe a reputable cop.
You definitely give the people who are doing legal work a great deal of dignity, even when they’re flawed. It distinguishes your work.
That’s kind of important to me. You know, in real life, I’m a corporate lawyer and I work for a big firm in downtown San Francisco in Embarcadero Center.
What I do in real life is very far from the stories I write. I’ve never handled a criminal case. I’m the last guy you should call if you get into trouble. But I do get a lot of help on my books from my friends who are prosecutors, and public defenders, and judges, and police officers.
You take them out for lunch and ask them, “What was the most interesting case you ever worked on?” And they’ll tell you. And they’re proud of what they do.
I think there’s a dignity to their job. I also think frankly, their job is a lot harder than mine. They deal with real people with real issues day to day.
San Francisco is a small town. And there’s only a few dozen full-time defense attorneys who do what Mike and Rosie do. And they’re trying to eek out a living doing it. And yes, there’s a lot of crime, but the people who commit the crimes often don’t have enough money to pay their lawyers.
So I try to respect the system because most people working in it are doing the best that they can. And obviously the system breaks down a lot and you see the breakdowns in the news. But I’ve talked with my friends who are police officers and judges and how they’re dealing with COVID and it’s just unbearable.
They can’t see people at trials, they can’t. They’re doing all sorts of things remotely, because it’s dangerous to have every anybody in court. And they’re just trying to get to tomorrow until the pandemic ends.
At the very tail end of your novel you refer to this virus that’s going around in China. How much of that is going to shape your upcoming volumes?
Well, it’s a good question. I wrote this whole book hoping I wouldn’t have to deal with COVID ever. But the next book will be set in the COVID era.
It won’t be a COVID story per se. I mean, it’s a murder trial. My contracts with my publishers used to say I could write anything I wanted, as long as it was a Mike Daley, Rosie Fernandez story involving a murder and San Francisco. So that’s not going to change. But the dynamics of everything have been altered so much in the COVID era.
Think about the time period before the vaccines. They had this huge outbreak at San Quentin, at all the jails. And so do you take your client to trial fast because the longer they stay, the more likely they’re going to get sick?
Again, it just creates this backdrop with a whole host of issues and unintended consequences. And my goal as a writer is to throw my characters into the middle of a mess and see how they deal with it.
In your books, the murder trial keeps you turning the pages, it’s that external plot. But the heart of it is these people. And it’s almost like the legal system in San Francisco is the setting in which we watch these people change, and grow, and struggle over time. How much, how important were family relationships to you in lining out your characters?
Well, you make a really good point. That’s really what these books are about, the relationships between Mike and Rosie, and Mike’s family, and Rosie’s family.
I mean, I always felt like the Godfather movies, they could have done away with all the violence. It was about family relationships, what happens with the next generation. And I don’t mean to suggest that my stuff is anywhere close to the brilliance of the Godfather movies, but that’s what I’ve been shooting for, for all these years. It’s about the people in these stories.
One of my friends says I’ve created a new genre, the legal thriller cozy. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The stuff that is most interesting to me, and I think the stuff that’s most interesting to my readers is what’s going on with Mike and Rosie now?
I’ve moved them around a little bit. Mike worked at a big firm for a while. Then they were together in a small firm. And now I’ve moved them back to the public defender’s office, which in my mind, is where they should have been all along. I think they’re in the right place now.
They’re very good at working together. They’re not very good at living together. They deal with all their family issues, which are complicated. And that’s what people seem to want to talk about.
I’ve always joked that if you read the first chapter and the last chapter of my books, you pretty much get the gist of what’s going on in everybody’s life. And if you want to read about a murder case, that’s fine, you can read the rest of it.
But it’s changed over the years a bit too, because in the early books, my first editor in particular, kept saying, “You got to pump up the action and the tension and the suspense and the drama. And you got to have car chases and you got to have people shooting at each other.” And that was never the intent.
I’m a lawyer. Mike’s a lawyer. If something bad happens, he’s going to call the cops. He’s not going to go chase somebody.
There’s always this intent, or this desire, in crime fiction to have some big action scene at the end, and have a big shootout and stuff. And it doesn’t work in these kinds of books.
My books are marketed as legal thrillers, but really they’re courtroom dramas. But what they really are, are mystery novels. There’s a crime at the beginning, there’s Mike, and Pete, and Rosie, and the whole gang investigating it. And there’s a trial or a courtroom component. And then the reveal comes at the end. That’s mystery.
It’s almost unnatural the way that books like yours have to be categorized to fit in a simple box that people can recognize. Maybe people go to you reading that these are legal thrillers, but I have a feeling your most devoted fans stay and keep consuming your stories because of all this other stuff that isn’t within that category of legal thriller.
Oh yeah. I get this a lot. They want to know what’s going on with Mike and Rosie and are they going to be okay? And what’s coming next. And the kids have grown up. I mean, they have two kids who, one’s out of college. One went to USC film school. Sound familiar? Like our daughter-in-law did. But they want to know that the family is going to be okay.
I really do love the way you let people age and change.
Yeah. Well, that was kind of important to me too. I think it’s more interesting if they get older and what they have to deal with in life changes.
Although I must confess, I cheat. Because Mike and Rosie are aging more slowly than they did in the early books.
In the early books, I think the first book Mike was 45, Rosie was 42. And in this book Mike’s 58 and Rosie’s 55, and they’ve been like 58 and 55 for three books now. Because I can’t have Mike and Pete running around San Francisco day and night for weeks, eating nothing but cheeseburgers and leftover pizza if he’s 78 years old, so.
You need to start mentioning their pill bottles.
Yes, yes. But the other thing, my readers have noticed this. And I fully cop to this. Mike and Rosie’s kids are getting older faster than Mike and Rosie. Grace has aged 20 years, Mike has aged 13.
Andy and I were recently talking about how we enjoy a lot of Aaron Sorkin’s work. And the reason why we enjoy it is because, well, first of all, there’s just really fun dialog, right? So that’s just pleasurable. But also because he likes to look at particular people in a work setting. He’s got an oeuvre of people in their particular jobs.
I almost feel like that’s what you’ve got here. You’ve got specific people in a setting, a work setting, that is also a particular place, San Francisco. So there’s like a lot to absorb, but at the heart of it are the people and how they react to their jobs.
Well, I think that’s absolutely true. And by the way, I think Sorkin’s a genius. I just saw, what was it? The Ricardo’s?
Shelley: Again, a work drama.
Exactly. That’s exactly what he did. He took just a week slice out of their lives. It was a very stressful time, but how do they react to it?
I once heard Elizabeth George say that if you’re trying to develop characters, you ask two questions. One is what drives them, what is their primary motivator? And someone like Lucille Ball, she was very ambitious and wanted desperately be successful.
And how do they react? The second question is how do they react to stress? And she was very nervous about it, but she didn’t panic.
When I’m developing characters, I’ve always kept that in mind.
With some it’s easier than others. If your character’s in a big law firm, like in my first book, and you want to say, “Well, what drives these people?” You just kind of go down the hall and go, “Greed, greed, greed, power, greed.”
And then how do they react to pressure? Well, screams, yells.
I think Sorkin does a really good job of getting to kind of the core of the characters in his stories that way. And I aspire to do that, but he’s really good at it.
You use family and work connections to create a San Francisco world that would be new to people without your experience. When you introduce a character, we find out they were a lineman for, I don’t know, Saint Ignatius High School or something like that. You’re always establishing their San Francisco bonafides. What neighborhoods were they from? Did they leave San Francisco to go to college? What happened to their father or their grandfather? And it makes it not just about the character. It makes it about the city in a very particular way.
Well, yeah, the city, what I’m hoping to do is create, is to make the city a character in the story more than a backdrop.
The inspiration for that was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Because nobody did it better than he did. Back in the seventies and eighties.
But this book in particular, this is a book for all the people from the neighborhoods. I’ve actually gotten a lot of mail about Last Call because it’s not about places the tourists go.
It’s about where all the cops, and the firefighters, and the bus drivers, and the PG&E people all lived.
I’ve gotten mail from people like in New York saying, “Hey, this is kind of like Queens.” Or, “This is the neighborhood on the Chicago Southwest side where I grew up.” This is where the real people live.
I want to populate my book with people they can relate to.
There’s an argument, well, everybody should be bigger than life in these novels. But I’m not trying for that. These books are about smart people from the neighborhood who are successful in their own way.
And all the locations in these stories are real, except for Big John’s Saloon in this book. That one I made up. But it’s kind of like the Little Shamrock on Lincoln Avenue in San Francisco, it’s been there forever.
When I went to a mystery writing conference you were leading at Book Passage one year, someone got up front and gave the advice, “Use all the real places you can unless some really bad stuff’s going to happen there. Then change the name.”
If I was going to have a restaurant where somebody was going to get ptomaine poisoning, I would not use the real name.
But I get all sorts of stuff from the real San Franciscans, the natives who say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been, I used to go to Bill’s Place my whole life, and Sam’s on Broadway and Beeps Burgers on Ocean Avenue.”
I want my readers to be able to drive around or walk around town and hang out in the places where Mike and Rosie hang out.
Hey Sheldon, if you have any spare minutes at all, you need to create a traveler’s guide to San Francisco and put it up on your website where they ought to eat and stay, and walk.
That’s actually a good idea. We should do that.
Where do you see Mike and Rosie going next?
They’re going to stick around for a while. I think they’ve got a few more cases at the public defender’s office.
I thought about moving them back into private practice, but I think they’re going to keep going for a while. At least until the kids are out of college.
And Nick the dick, the 95-year-old private investigator who everybody just loves, he will be doing what he does until he’s 110. I left Nick out of one book a long time ago. My editor said it’s time to retire the character. And I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She said, “Well, it’s a one-note character.” And I said, “But it’s a really good note.”
So after that, I got all the mail I thought I was going to get. I said, “No, Nick’s coming back.” And he’ll be around for a while.
Well, thanks again, Sheldon.
Everybody needs to read Last Call. t’s a fantastic book. I really loved it. But really you’re going to want the whole series. So start at the very beginning.
Well, thank you very much.
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About Shelley Blanton-Stroud
I grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. I recently retired from teaching writing at Sacramento State University and still consult with writers in the energy industry. I co-direct Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors, and serve on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children. I’ve also served on the Writers’ Advisory Board for the Belize Writers’ Conference. Copy Boy is my first Jane Benjamin Novel. Tomboy (She Writes Press 2022) will be my second. The third, Poster Girl, will come out in November 2023. My writing has been a finalist in the Sarton Book Awards, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, the American Fiction Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. I and my husband live in Sacramento with an aging beagle, Ernie, and many photos of our out-of-town sons and their wonderful partners.
To find out more about Shelley Blanton-Stroud and her books, and to sign up for her newsletter, go here. https://shelleyblantonstroud.com