Big Law

Big Law

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by Chuck Logan

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An Interview with the author

The Big Law uses the Witness Protection program as a plot device in a unique way. Where'd you get the idea for the book?

My agent and I were discussing story ideas, we'd read an article in the New York Times Magazine about life inside the Federal Witness Protection Program and we wondered if anything new could

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An Interview with the author

The Big Law uses the Witness Protection program as a plot device in a unique way. Where'd you get the idea for the book?

My agent and I were discussing story ideas, we'd read an article in the New York Times Magazine about life inside the Federal Witness Protection Program and we wondered if anything new could be done with the material. I thought about it and was struck by the obvious.

What do you mean, the obvious?

Because it's only the oldest story in the world: if it wasn't for squealers, cops wouldn't catch most crooks. Thriller fiction is currently fascinated with investigative techniques, i.e. forensic pathologists and psychological profilers chasing serial killers. In The Big Law, I go back to basics. Along with the hangman's noose, the oldest tool that links crime to punishment is the informant. The cop still has to make his rounds. But if he fails to turn up obvious clues, in the real world, he works his snitches for tips.

Are snitches really that important?

Literary conceits aside, Sherlock Holmes did not put John Gotti out of business. An informant did. The best investigators and forensics in the USA working for decades did not catch the Unabomber. His brother did.

Probably, in the first recorded crime, God sweated a snitch who pled down to finger Cain.

Where did the Witness Program come from and how big is it?

The program is authorized by Congress, run by the Justice Department and administered by the U.S. Marshals Service. It currently has a budget of $53 million a year, protects 6,000 witnesses and originated from a single deal struck in 1964. In exchange for a promise of freedom from prosecution and safe passage out of the county, Joe Valachi broke the mafia code of silence and testified against his fellow mobsters. Instead of freedom, Valachi received the protection of solitary confinement. Depressed when the feds reneged on their end of the bargain, Valachi attempted to take his life. Valachi's story summarizes the cynical culture of the informant.

We hear about high profile witnesses like Sammy Gravanno who generate big cases, prompt big headlines and get royal treatment. Is he typical of people who go into Witness Protection?

No, 97% of the people who enter the program are small-time hoods. And now the program is crammed with drug cases. These guys aren't getting book deals and interviews on 20/20. The odds are heavily stacked against these minor crooks readjusting smoothly to the straight life and having happy endings to their stories. They get one shot at redemption with the U.S. Marshals Service as their mentors.

What kind of services do the marshals provide?

Ideally, after a witness is accepted into the program, the marshals give him psychological and job counseling, a new name and a social security card. They transport the witness to a new home amid elaborate security procedures. Depending on the deal the witness has cut for his testimony, he might receive a small loan to start a business. Cash is advanced to buy a second-hand car. A monthly stipend of $2,000 is guaranteed up to 18 months. Then the majority of protected witnesses get cut free to tough it out.

Sounds like a difficult adjustment.

Absolutely. The first step is devastating for the witness. He's become a government certified rat, the most despised role in the criminal culture. Then there is the considerable problem of going from a violent illegal life on the streets to a usually low paying, straight 9 to 5 job. Imagine being a nocturnal drug dealer suddenly stuck with Tommy Lee Jones as your armed nanny who's bugging you to get up at dawn and make it to work at Wendy's.

Is it really that grim?

Sure it is. The purpose behind Witness Protection is pragmatic, not charitable. It wasn't created to rehabilitate crooks. The object is to get convictions with their testimony. Witness Protection is a world of power, intimidation and deal-making in which the ordinary witness is a talking puppet. The federal prosecutor pulling the strings is not primarily concerned with the witnesses eventual welfare. The more ambitious the prosecutor, the bigger the target, the faster and looser the deals. Not surprisingly, given the players, problems crop up.

Witness Protection's sometimes deadly foibles -- the relocated witness who can't adjust to his new life and goes on a criminal rampage -- are grist for journalists, most recently Bill Moushey's May, 1996 muckraking series in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

So what's different about the way you use the program in your novel?

I talked with federal judges, former federal prosecutors, police detectives, county sheriffs and FBI agents about the program. (The Marshals Service, naturally, was not forthcoming in talking to a fiction writer looking for flaws in their operation) I got the impression that a security blind side to the tightly-run program might be the white collar "innocent witness."

What makes the innocent witness unique?

The fact they are virtually non-existent. The program was set up for crooks who get pressured between lousy choices. And even the crooks are given harsh forewarnings about the difficulty of relocation.

If the social deprivation of being uprooted from family and community is hard on drug dealers and mafia street soldiers, it's much more discouraging for a law abiding citizen. And changing your identity means you can't take your resume with you. So it's rough to reestablish a lawyer or an accountant in a new life.

Cops and prosecutors are hardened to dealing with criminals who pass into Witness Protection. But I surmised they could be duped by a seemingly innocent citizen who has critical information to trade and who appears to be caught up in events.

How does this scenario play out in your story?

What if getting into Witness Protection is not a desperately chosen alternative to the threat of criminal vengeance? What if the anonymity offered by the program is the answer to the dreams of a lifetime; changing your identity and living out your fantasies. And what if the "innocent witness" -- unbeknownst to the feds -- has acquired the means to make his fantasies a reality?

This scenario is new and turns the dynamics of the program upside down. In The Big Law an opportunistic reporter comes into possession of priceless information and sees a way out of his depressing ordinary life. He trades his evidence for a berth in the Witness Protection Program. In the process he gets away with murder, frames someone else for the crime, steals two million bucks and uses the unwitting program as a chrysalis for his transformation into a potent new person.

Witness Protection is only the doorway that opens my story. My villain has found the perfect foil to commit the perfect crime. Unfortunately for him, he has also blundered onto a deadly international chess board involving the Russian mafia and a deep undercover FBI operation.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
As character-driven a thriller as you're likely to find. Logan makes strong use of his setting, a Minnesota as physically and spirtually glacial as The Ice Storm's Connecticut wasteland...[a] story of the chilling desperation that turns a normal heart to crime.
Bookman Book Review
This fascinating account of how the government program operates and its vulnerabilities will entice the reader with its multiple layers of intrigue and dilemmas.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Readers will be hanging on to theedge of their seats until the final page.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
[A] thoroughly engaging page-turner...Logan has perfected his penchant for delivering a surprise punch.
Chicago Tribune
One of the best new thriller writers is back with a twisty offering involving bad cops, ex-wives, sleazy newspaper reporters and the witness-protection program...that leave[s] readers on the edge of their seats. If he were a boxer, he'd be a heavyweight, and definitely a contender.
MAXIM Magazine
[A] taut thriller...Logan's graphic style and knowledge of FBI inner workings (reminiscent of Tom Clancy's, though not so damned techno-geeky) raise it well above the genre standard.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
[Chuck] Logan demonstrates his ability to create the appealing and appalling characters essential for conflict in the thriller genre. He has also perfected his penchant for delivering a surprise punch. The Big Law proves that he richly deserves the accolades he received for his earlier thrillers, The Price of Blood and Hunter's Moon
Charles Jaco
Chuck Logan is a remarkably good writer...not only gives us a miserable villain etched in acid, he gives us writing with flashes of brilliance...[I] couldn't put this book down. -- USA Today
St. Paul Pioneer
[An] intricate enjoyable mix of action and suspense with characters who hold up. A psychological study of how fantasies can go wrong.
Kirkus Reviews
A crackerjack thriller and a second appearance for Phil Broker (The Price of Blood, 1997), tough ex-cop, hard-bitten Vietnam vet, and serious daddy.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt

December 11; 11:33 a.m.

The box came in the UPS morning delivery at the rear entrance of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building at the corner of Kellogg and Robert, in downtown St. Paul. It measured eighteen inches by sixteen inches, and was six inches deep. It weighed about twelve pounds. A red label slapped diagonal to the address announced: CONTENTS REFRIGERATED. A retired cop in a security company blazer manned the guard station. He placed the box on the X-ray machine belt.

First, the label caught his attention.

Then the quilt of mismatched stamps. And the address: "For FBI Special Agent Lorn Garrison"--like real personal. And the office number of a federal and local joint task force investigating narcotics traffic in the county; it was an office number not given out to the public. Very alert now, he ran the box and focused on his video monitor.

He was trained to look for five objects inside packages: detonators, power sources, switches, chemicals, and wires that connected them.

He saw shapes in the monitor screen that could be all five. He stopped the conveyor, picked up his phone, and alerted the main security office. In a calm forceful voice, he ordered everyone in the immediate area to exit the building.

People spilled into the intersection of Jackson and Fourth Streets, among them a supervisor in the IRS offices. He'd heard someone at the guard station say the word bomb. So he called his office on his cell phone and said, "I think there's a bomb." Other office workers lined up to use his cell phone and notify their offices.

In sixty seconds the stairwells thundered with people whoseimaginations thundered with visions of Oklahoma City. There was still no official order to evacuate. Hundreds of federal employees were now out stamping in the cold on Jackson, Fourth, and Robert Streets and on Kellogg Boulevard.

A photographer for the St. Paul paper, returning from an assignment, drove down Fourth Street, got stuck in a crowd of people milling in the intersection of Fourth and Robert, and asked what was going on.

"There's a bomb scare."

The photographer called his photo desk and omitted the word scare. Then he left his car in the middle of the street and jockeyed for a good shooting position. He conjured an image of the building perfectly captured at the precise moment it collapsed. He saw it in his mind's eye and also on the covers of Time and Newsweek. With equal clarity, he saw his photo credit. Only one thing bothered him. The cruddy overcast day had wet cement for light. He loved to light and pose everything just so. How do you pose a building?

All over downtown, phones and pagers buzzed. Fire trucks rolled. Police barricades went up.

At 11:40 the FBI office at the building formally requested the St. Paul Police Department's bomb squad to investigate a suspicious package. They checked the switchboard and the mail room. There had been no bomb threats. They held back on the order to evacuate.

The city did not have a dedicated bomb unit, but in fifteen minutes, two pickup squad members arrived in the white "ice cream truck" with their bomb disposal wagon in tow. At twelve noon they took control of the site. After confirming that everyone was out of the rear entry area, one cop remotely toggled a wheeled robot down the truck ramp. The other cop Velcroed on ninety pounds of Kevlar navy blue armor, inserted a thick steel chest plate in the suit's breast pocket, pulled on a sloped visored helmet, activated the internal cooling system, struggled into a pair of cumbersome mittens, and clanked through the door.

If this was the big one, the suit would maybe allow the coroner to have an intact corpse to poke. The guy wearing the suit knew this.

He approached the X-ray machine and made a visual inspection. Two shadows on the video screen caught his attention. The detonator cap was inert, missing a portion, and the connecting wires were, in the lingo of his dark trade, "shunted," meaning crossed. Not an open circuit.

In case the bomb squad was having a bad day, the creator of the apparatus had stuck thin lead foil strips on the "explosive" bundle to painstakingly spell out: SMILE IF YOU EAT SHIT.

"Bomb hoax," the bomb tech radioed his partner.

But, following procedure, and just in case, they remotely disrupted the package. The man in the suit used a sixteen-foot pole with a pincer to move it off the X-ray machine and place it on the floor. Then they toggled in the robot and blew the box apart using a twelve-gauge water cannon on the robot's arm.

After the robot's video camera inspected the debris, the man in the suit went in again, made a visual sweep, and issued an official all clear. He paused in the doorway and removed his helmet. A knot of fast-moving men left the police cordon and approached him.

Perusing the stern faces and spit-shined wing tips, the bomb cop queried, "You FBI?" The agents nodded. "Who's Lorn Garrison?" he asked.

"I'm Garrison," said a tall, saturnine senior guy. Maybe fifty-five.

The bomb cop handed Garrison a sopping wet portion of cardboard with the address on it. Expressionless, he said, "You've got mail."

Garrison peered through the door at the scattered box. A white cloud seeped from some of the debris.

Garrison sniffed. "Is that smoke?"

The bomb cop shook his head. "Vapor. It's safe--physically. I don't know about psychologically."

The agents exchanged glances. Going in, Garrison tapped his finger on the typed return address on the crumpled wet cardboard that bore a St. Paul postmark, dated yesterday:

Alex Gorski
3173 Harriet Place
St. Paul

The Big Law. Copyright © by Chuck Logan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Chuck Logan is the author of eight novels, including After the Rain, Vapor Trail, Absolute Zero, and The Big Law. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War who lives in Stillwater, Minnesota, with his wife and daughter.

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Big Law 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started reading the Phil Broker series in non-sequential order, this being the next to last for me. With each installment the main characters (Broker and Nina) get more complex, interesting and likeable. The books all have plots that you don't solve in the first chapter, in fact, they take some thought to keep up. All in all, the Big Law was an excellent read. I'm getting ready to start the last one (which is really the first one)The Price of Money. I'm looking forward to it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pg 216 - 268 are duplicate chapters. Story is good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author knows how to write. Sylvester Stallone has already written a screenplay based upon a different Logan book, and this Big Law could be a sequal. Keeps moving, thoughtfully written, good characters, unexpected plot twists. Good read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago