Think “thriller” and any number of things come to mind:
Weapons of mass destruction;
Wait a second–Real Estate? Donald Trump’s hair aside, real estate seems to be unlikely subject matter for a thriller. Until you talk to Justin Peacock, author of Blind Man’s Alley, due for release this month from Doubleday.
Blind Man’s Alley is Peacock’s second novel, following his Edgar Award-nominated legal thriller A Cure for Night. The book explores the high-stakes world of New York real estate from two very different perspectives.
Duncan Riley, an associate at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, clearly has his hands full. On the billable hours side of the ledger Riley must sort through a maze of legal and public relations problems arising from a high-rise construction accident that took the lives of three workers. On the pro bono side he is working to prevent the eviction of an elderly woman and her grandson from public housing after the youth is arrested on drug charges. The seemingly insignificant eviction matter takes center stage when the grandson is charged with the murder of a security guard in a so-called “mixed income” development being built by Roth Properties. Roth Properties, it turns out, happens to be the same firm developing the high-rise where the fatal accident took place.
But why real estate?
“Real estate is a central part of life in New York City,” Peacock explained. “The city is always changing, and those changes usually are based on buying and selling real estate. Realtors in New York are larger than life. Add the unions and some mob involvement, high profile accidents and the end of the boom years, and real estate becomes a microcosm of the entire city.”
Although real estate machinations drive Blind Man’s Alley, the book really is about New York City as much as it is a legal thriller.
“It’s the only place I know inside out,” said Peacock, who lives in Brooklyn. “And the city is great territory for a writer. As much as anyone else, New York is one of the characters in my books. I want to show how the city works, the highs and the lows.”
A topic of discussion at a ThrillerFest panel on legal fiction was how accurate depictions of courtroom proceedings and legal procedure needed to be. A person in the audience, who said that he was neither a lawyer nor a writer, told the panelists that he did not really care about the accuracy of the legal procedures. What he wanted, the reader said, was a good story. Peacock agreed.
“I want to do what the narrative requires,” he explained. I don’t want my novels to be textbooks on criminal procedure. If there is a conflict, good storytelling has to win out. A truly realistic portrayal of a criminal trial is very boring. Of course, I don’t want to be spectacularly unrealistic.”
Peacock spends all his time writing these days, the transition from fulltime attorney to fulltime author coming after A Cure for Night was published.
“I worked on the first book in my spare time,” he said, “while I was practicing fulltime.” The idea of “spare time” for an associate at a large law firm can be a contradiction of terms, and Peacock added that “it’s a mystery to me how I got it done while working fulltime. I didn’t advertise the fact that I was writing a novel, and the book’s success came as something of a surprise to a lot of people I worked with.
“After the first book came out, I decided that I couldn’t practice law and write at the same time.” Peacock said that he did not miss the long hours, but that he did miss the “strategic aspects” of practicing law. “A law firm can be a collection of extremely smart people, and I enjoyed collaborating with them.” This love of strategy is reflected in the intricate plotting of Blind Man’s Alley, which effectively weaves together subplots and a large cast of characters.
With a law degree from Yale and time spent as an associate at a Manhattan law firm, Peacock crafts a realistic portrait of the law and the city from personal experience. And like his protagonist Duncan Riley, Peacock learned to shift gears quickly from cases with millions of dollars at stake to pro bono work for clients who otherwise could not foot the bill for his firm’s services.
“That kind of variety was one of the good things about practicing law,” he said. “And I try to reflect that in the book. Being a lawyer gives you some insights into who you are and it always tests your personal morality. Law affects every part of society and the practice of law can tell you a lot about how society actually works. I hope that I’m providing readers with a book that is entertaining, but with some food for thought about contemporary life in New York.”