Justice rarely comes easy, even in a fair legal system. But what if the country were drifting toward dictatorship? What if the entrenched powers were jailing the opposition and using the courts as a tool of oppression? That describes exactly the legal system in Christopher Brown’s compelling dystopian legal thriller, RULE OF CAPTURE.
Houston lawyer Donny Kimoe scrapes out a living by defending enemies of the state. Then a judge appoints him to represent a young radical who was arrested for exposing the oppressive regime. Confronted with a rigged system, Donny seeks justice for his client—possibly at the expense of his own life.
RULE OF CAPTURE is a tautly written, highly inventive novel in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and John Grisham, with a dash of Franz Kafka thrown in.
Brown was kind enough to join us for a talk about his new novel and his writing career.
Although you invented the legal system in RULE OF CAPTURE, you extrapolated from existing legal precedents. Please elaborate.
I researched the imaginary legal system in this book pretty much the same way you would prepare a real case—at the law library, digging into the casebooks and treatises. I borrowed from real-world counterinsurgency tribunals, from the Civil War to Guantánamo. I dusted off the Cold War treason and loyalty statutes still on the books, and imagined them being aggressively enforced. I looked at the naturalization and citizenship laws, immigration proceedings, and the ways in which birthright citizenship could lawfully be revoked. I found a whole section of treatises on the domestic administration of martial law and put them to work. I let the feds exercise the power to suspend habeas corpus that the founders wrote into the constitution. And that was just the start! There’s plenty of dystopia already here, if you look in the right place.
Donny was once part of the legal establishment but now defends enemies of the state. What motivates him?
At the beginning, he’s like a lot of lawyers—doing what he does to pay the bills every day without giving a lot of thought to why. He’s a cynic, but he’s also an idealist, both in his desire to help the clients who can’t afford to pay him, and in his belief that he can figure out a way to get a decent outcome from a rigged system. He loves the law, but doesn’t like to work too hard. He’s a screw-up, but he has a strong sense of duty to his clients. And he refuses to give up on the dream of a better future.
Putting aside Donny, who is your favorite character in RULE OF CAPTURE?
Well, I love Xelina, Donny’s radical client, in part because she shares a lot of qualities with my own wife and some of the activist women I know. But my answer is probably Judge Broyles, I think, because he really feels real to me—a synthesis of a lot of old-school jurists and lawyers I have known. He’s the best result of my effort to imagine a plausible functionary in an authoritarian America—the guy who listens to Winston Churchill speeches and plays golf while the world burns, thinking if the powers that be just fight harder to enforce their rules everything will turn out okay. And yet one who, in the end, still believes in those rules, even if a smart lawyer figures out a way to use them to compel an outcome he’s not crazy about.
One of your characters says, “The law’s just the rules they make up to keep themselves in power.” Does Donny agree?
Donny doesn’t agree with that at the beginning of the story, but he does by the end. He goes from being a lawyer who works for the system to one who works inside the system on behalf of its enemies and victims, and ultimately becomes a lawyer who really fights the system. He finds his purpose in becoming a 21st century variation of an endangered species of lawyer—the champion of the underdog who is unafraid to speak truth to power, equal parts Atticus Finch, William Kunstler, and Better Call Saul.
The novel is set in a very different Houston, Texas. What about that city makes it such a compelling setting?
Houston is a city where anything goes, the most diverse city I have ever experienced, and the one with the most mental freedom. It’s the place where the hardscrabble Texas pioneer ethos gets expressed through modern business, and fortunes are made by people unafraid to lie to bankers to get the money they need to drill a hole in the ground—the world capital of “better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.” A city that makes some of the best, craziest art and music on the planet. A city where lawyers make TV ads taking sledgehammers to large objects. A city where the white shoe lawyers invented greenmail and other tactics to use arcane corporate law as means of lawful extortion, and plaintiffs’ lawyers learned how to get in on the fun by treating busted mergers as contingency fee opportunities. A city famous for inventing its own insane intoxicants. A place where you can have a head shop and a strip club next to a high school named after Robert E. Lee. And a city built in a swamp, a place where wild nature is just waiting to take it all back—if the next big storm doesn’t beat it to it.
RULE OF CAPTURE is a dystopian legal thriller. What are the challenges in writing a mixed-genre novel?
It’s hard! I wanted to borrow from speculative fiction, the self-proclaimed “literature of ideas,” to write a legal thriller that was about the law as much as the facts. One where the client was guilty, but the laws they violated were unjust—the laws of an authoritarian state. That means it’s a book where the world is another character you have to invent, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t pull a reader who isn’t used to the tropes of sci-fi out of the story. Complicate that with all the quirks of legal thrillers—the procedural structure, the way role defines character, the way interiority is evaded to avoid revealing the lawyer’s strategy, the way the basic rule of “show, don’t tell” is broken by the narrative remove of witnesses telling the story of the story—and it’s doubly tricky. But in the end, tremendous fun.
Who are some of your favorite writers? (For RULE OF CAPTURE, I see the influences of William Gibson and Franz Kafka.)
Gibson for sure, and Kafka to some extent—I reread The Trial while working on the book, as well as the German writer Peter Weiss’s update of that story in his play The New Trial. Thriller writers I love include John le Carré and Graham Greene, and I’d counterintuitively put Joan Didion in that category—her novels Play It as It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer work as thrillers in my mind, and are a big influence. J. G. Ballard’s novels also work as thrillers, especially the later ones, and he may be the biggest early influence, along with Walker Percy and Bruce Sterling. And among the best discoveries I made working on this book were the lawyer stories of George Higgins, especially Kennedy for the Defense —wonderful character-driven stuff, rich with the material of real lawyering.
How would you describe your writing process?
I trained my dogs to get me up at five, and I’m able to stick to that most days, and get a solid few hours in before the world wakes up. I still practice law, as a solo practitioner now, but most days I’m able to get a second shift of writing in after I take care of my clients and before dinner. I do not outline, or more accurately my outlines don’t survive the first scene in which the character tells you what they really want to do. I don’t even write in a straight line, at least not the first draft. I write an opening, and a rough ending, and then jump all over in between like putting clay on different parts of a sculpture, letting plot emerge from character. It’s an inefficient process, but one aided by real deadlines.
Please tell us about your next project.
I’m hustling right now to meet the (extended) deadline for a novel I am calling Failed State—about Donny Kimoe again, but this time defending people being hauled in front of the truth and reconciliation tribunals that follow a Second American Revolution. A utopian legal thriller, you might say—which is even harder to write, but hopefully even more rewarding.
Christopher Brown’s debut Tropic of Kansas was a finalist for the 2018 Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of the year. His new novel RULE OF CAPTURE, the beginning of a series of speculative legal thrillers, is forthcoming from Harper Voyager in August 2019. He was a World Fantasy Award nominee for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he also practices law.
To learn more about Christopher, please visit his website.