Big Law

Big Law

by Chuck Logan
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Big Law by Chuck Logan

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061096877
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/28/2003
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.12(d)

About 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