By George Ebey
John F. Dobbyn is the author a series of legal thrillers featuring attorneys Lex Devlin and Michael Knight. His first book, NEON DRAGON, had Lex and Michael going up against the Chinese Tong. The second book, FRAME UP, put them in a clash between the Italian and Russian mafias. Now Lex and Michael are back in their latest thriller, BLACK DIAMOND.
This time around, the intrepid duo agrees to defend a jockey accused of murdering a fellow jockey during a race at Boston’s Suffolk Downs. A personal attachment to the murdered jockey thrusts Michael and Lex into the midst of a conflict between Boston’s Irish mafia and criminal remnants of the terrorist branch of the Irish Republican Army. As Michael and Lex uncover layer after layer of deception involved in the underside of horse racing, they become a liability to both gangs. In action that shuttles between Ireland and Boston, the lives of both lawyers and those close to them are in the crosshairs of the gangs on both sides of the Atlantic.
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with John F. Dobbyn to discuss his new book:
BLACK DIAMOND is a third in the series of legal thrillers featuring Michael Knight and Lex Devlin. For the uninitiated, could you tell a little something about these two characters?
After three novels and the beginning of a fourth, these two characters, Michael Knight and Lex Devlin, have become as close to me as members of my family. Michael Knight is a twenty-eight year old criminal trial attorney in Boston. He tells the stories in his own words as he lives them. I’ve been asked if he is my alter-ego. I wish. He is infinitely more intelligent, clever in tight situations, and courageous than I could ever claim to be. He is a scrawny six foot–one with no pre-possessing physical attributes that would enable him to fight his way out of dangerous situations ala Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Instead he relies on his only weapons – a quick wit, a poker-player’s bluff, and the kind of courage John Wayne spoke of when he defined courage as “Being scared stiff, and saddling up anyway.” He is somewhat loose with the truth when it serves a good purpose, but at the base of it all, there is a rock-bottom moral code and a loyalty that will take him into such lions’ dens as Bikers bars, gangster headquarters, and clusters of killers on nothing but trumped-up attitude if it serves a client or a friend to whom he has committed himself.
Lex Devlin is a tough old, battle-scarred lion of the criminal defense bar, with whom Michael was paired against the will of both in the first novel, NEON DRAGON. The relationship grew in that novel to the point of their forming the independent law firm of Devlin and Knight, which has taken on the cases and adventures of the second (FRAME UP) and third (BLACK DIAMOND) , and, in the works, fourth (title to be determined) novels. The crustiness of Lex and his practice of one-up criminal trial tactics is softened by the deepening father-son attachment that is constantly developing between Lex and Michael in the later novels.
In this story, Michael and Lex defend a jockey accused of murdering a fellow jockey during a race at Boston‘s Suffolk Downs. Was horse racing something that you were interested in before you started this book?
One of the truly great loves of my life has been horse racing since my parents (my dad a teacher at Boston Latin School, my mother a registered nurse) began taking me to Suffolk Downs in Boston on Saturdays from the age of three. My wife, Lois, and I began fulfilling a dream by owning interests in race horses many years ago, which has given us an entrée into the inner sanctums of the “backstretch” of race tracks from Suffolk Downs to Saratoga Springs for the early morning clustering of trainers and jockeys for the daily workouts, and the paddock on race day for the final words between trainers and jockeys as the horses take to the track for a race. It is, without question, the most dangerous sport on earth. Every jockey balances on two tiny bars of steel over the neck of a horse traveling at forty miles an hour in quarters so close that the front and rear hooves of two horses can click in an instant, throwing the horse head-over-heels and hurling the jockey into the path of flying hooves from behind. There is not a jockey at any track who has not seen more than a little of hospital emergency rooms. And yet they ride four, five, six races a day – for the love of the game, and would never choose to do anything else. That is courage.
You got your start writing short stories that appeared in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. How did this help you to prepare for the leap to full-length novels?
After writing about twenty-three short stories for ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, I knew it was time to assault the mountain – write a full length novel. I started by meeting in my mind Lex Devlin and Michael Knight. But before tackling NEON DRAGON, I wrote two short stories with these characters so that we could get to know each other to the point at which I had a sense of how each would react and what they’d say in any situation. The stories appeared in ELLERY QUEEN, and the experience proved invaluable. Since characters are the heart and soul of a novel (not the plot – although that has to be first-rate too), I recommend this approach to any new novelist.
What’s your favorite part of writing a series?
I have two favorite parts of writing a series. The first is that my friends, Lex and Michael, continue to grow as individuals and in their relationship with each other in each novel. That keeps it fresh, and as said above, the characters are the most important ingredient in a novel. People frequently ask me when they can see Michael and Lex in another novel. They don’t ask for another plot, but rather for more of these characters. Other writers have had the same experience.
The second favorite part of a series is that just as Sue Grafton is working her way through the alphabet, I’m enjoying working my way through the ethnic organized crime gangs of the world. In NEON DRAGON it was the Chinese Tong in Boston’s Chinatown. In FRAME UP it was the Italian and Russian mafias. In BLACK DIAMOND it was the Irish mafia in Boston and the criminal (formerly terrorist) element of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin. And there is no danger of running out of gangs. I’m finding that almost every ethnic group –perhaps other than the Eskimos – has its very own organized crime gang.
What’s your least favorite part?
That’s easy. There are no least favorite parts. Thank God.
John F. Dobbyn, graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, Professor of Law at Villanova, and his wife, Lois, live in Valley Forge, PA. He wrote 26 short stories, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine before writing NEON DRAGON, the first in his Lex Devlin and Michael Knight legal thriller series involving the Chinese Tong. The second, FRAME UP, put Lex and Michael in a clash between the Italian and Russian mafias over art theft and forgery. The third, BLACK DIAMOND, puts the two between the Irish mafia in Boston and the criminal remnants of the Irish Republican Army over a murder involving horse racing.
To learn more about John, please visit his website.