The legal thriller genre has transcended the contours of Mary Higgins Clark’s thrill killings and John Grisham’s courtroom drama to combine history, adventure, fantasy, and Gothicism in ways that realistically represent the essence of human conflict.
Award-winning mystery writer and former trial attorney John Dobbyn, who is a professor of law at Villanova Law School, has been instrumental in expanding this genre to uncharted terrains that redefine truth and justice.
Dobbyn’s latest nail-biter, HIGH STAKES, connects a pair of 21st century attorneys with the era of Prince Vlad Tepes Dracula, a tyrannical 15th-century Romanian ruler whose exploits have catalyzed a belief in the mythical existence of a vampire with the same last name. The story unfolds in a space where the present and past collide with a bevy of secrets that question one’s ability to control the uncontrollable—unless resilience and wit can take over.
An authentic Stradivarius violin is believed to hold a code revealing the whereabouts of a treasure that Vlad Dracula had carefully hidden during the 15th century. An excursion to Romania in search of this rare violin tosses Michael Knight and his senior law partner Lex Devlin into the crosshairs of three Boston-based Russian, Chinese, and Romanian gangs who want that code. Boston’s deputy district attorney Billy Coyne joins the fray to help Knight and Devlin ensure that the treasure falls into the right lap, even as Knight taps into his knowledge of the violin to ward off the brutal mafiosos. What follows is a trail of historic clues, all the way from a violin shop in Central and Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains to a hoodlum-infested Bucharest nightclub and a university in Istanbul to the headquarters of the three competing mobsters.
HIGH STAKES is the sixth of Dobbyn’s much lauded Knight/Devlin mysteries, which have unraveled adventures spanning the Chinese Tong’s domination of Boston’s Chinatown (in Neon Dragon), international art forgery (in Frame Up), horse racing (in Black Diamond), the use of Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds for terrorist activity (in Deadly Diamonds), and illicit trading of endangered wild animals in the Amazon rainforest (in Fatal Odds).
This latest installment grew out of a conversation Dobbyn had with a waitress in Costa Rica during a Christmas holiday in 2017.
When she learned that Dobbyn and his family lived in Pennsylvania, she exclaimed, “Good heavens! Are you vampires?”
Roughly a week later, Dobbyn received an ad for a Romania-bound Viking cruise. These “two nudges in one strange direction” urged him and his wife Lois to embark on the cruise. Upon landing in Transylvania, the duo traveled all through the Carpathian area. That expedition gave Dobbyn the leeway to delve into the legend of vampires as an embodiment of Transylvania lore.
Vampirism conventions are often traced back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel, Dracula, which unveils Count Dracula’s efforts to relocate to England from Transylvania in a bid to quench his thirst for new blood.
During his research, Dobbyn’s discovery of Prince Vlad’s existence in the 1400s impelled him to investigate why and how the medieval monarch inspired the fictional character of Dracula. “Behind this vampire legend was a real human being. And the human being, for me, was more fascinating than the vampire,” Dobbyn says of Vlad.
After all, Vlad was the Pope’s only savior amid an effort to save Christianity—an aspect that intrigued Dobbyn in a scenario where jocular or derisive mentions of “Dracula” tend to conjure up a visual imagery of Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty vampire. “So I thought that having Vlad impact my two lawyers who live in present-day Boston could be a theme for this novel,” he says.
In an interview with The Big Thrill, Dobbyn opened up about his literary journey and his approach to blending action, history, and crime in a narrative that loses no momentum as a new-age legal thriller.
What made you choose a Stradivarius violin as an object of interest?
I’ve always loved music. Everyone would say that no one has ever created a violin that has the power, sound, and resonance of a Stradivarius violin.
You began the Knight/Devlin saga with Neon Dragon, which is the first of six novels in the series. How has the relationship between Michael Knight and Lex Devlin evolved over the course of all six books?
Neon Dragon portrays Michael as a 27-year-old trial attorney in a law firm while Lex Devlin of the Boston Bar Association is a lion whose presence terrorizes other lawyers. Michael finds himself working with Lex on a murder trial. Back then, Michael, although petrified of Lex, recognized that his partner not only had more integrity, but was also more human than any other lawyer in the firm. The bond that formed between the two grew so strong that Mike freed Lex from a false charge of jury fixing—a cloud that had been lingering for years, driving Lex to alcoholism. Mike and Lex soon came together as partners and established a law firm. By the end of the second novel in the series, they are almost like father and son. And now, each one would lay down his life for the other.
How do you combine your scenes of adventure with your portrayal of sinister or evil acts?
I wish Mike were my alter ego. But Mike has a higher moral code and is faithful to his word. As cowboy film star John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” I’ve always adopted that approach with Michael. And that’s the basis for solving most of the problems that he gets into.
What is your modus operandi for blending contemporary, historical, and crime elements into a narrative that keeps the pace and thrill?
My primary objective is to entertain, create tension, and hold the reader in suspense. Further, I like leaving the reader with knowledge of an intriguing subject that they perhaps didn’t know much about before they read the book, all the way from horse racing to the dozens of species of animals that are driven to extinction every year in the Amazon rainforest. Even in fiction, shedding a spotlight on critical issues that can be addressed becomes a vehicle of positive social change.
What was your approach to plot development and scene construction in High Stakes?
As I began the novel, I knew what its general theme would be. When I started my opening scene, I thought of the best lines I could put together. The dialogue would then drive me to the next situation. When I sat down every morning, I had no clue what mess I was going to get Michael and Lex into! And heavens know that I’d be able to get them out of it! But God has never failed me.
What triggered your urge to write fiction after several years as an attorney, and what was your first big break?
After my wife, Lois, and I moved from Boston to Valley Forge, Pa., where I began teaching at [Villanova] Law School, Lois wanted to take tennis lessons. I signed up for a creative writing course to kill the time while she was in lessons. One of my first pieces of short fiction was a mystery story involving a blind criminology professor. I sent it to the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, which bought it.
For the next six years, I wrote several short stories, one after the other. I couldn’t find any takers. I sent many stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to no avail. Lois kept me going. Whenever I mailed one manuscript, Lois would urge me to get started on the next one!
Once, a note from Ellery Queen’s editor-in-chief accompanied my rejection slip. That note said, “You’re getting close. Don’t quit.” So I wrote another story and sent it to her, and she bought that one. She published the next 22 short stories I wrote. And that led to finally facing the idea of writing a novel. It took me seven to eight years to finish my first novel, Neon Dragon, and then find an agent and a publisher. It was picked up by Oceanview Publishing and I’ve been with them ever since.
How have you drawn upon your experience as a trial attorney and a professor for your novels?
I began working as a trial lawyer after I completed my study at Harvard Law School. My experience of trial work gave me a realistic sense of how lawyers communicate with each other, with their clients or with a judge in court. All of this was invaluable in terms of lending more authenticity to my fiction, especially when I decided that my protagonist would tell all his stories in first person.
Also, teaching at law school gave me time to write and opened me up to subtler nuances of how the law works—you come across countless cases of people getting into conflict with the law and the stories embedded therein. And it’s from that background that one gets a sense of what a lawyer can do in a fiction setting.
What is your view on the popularity of mixed-genre novels?
Genres that cross lines are marvelous. An absolute rule of fiction-writing is that there are no rules. The only thing is that you have to write it well. Stephen King has broken most of the rules that were believed to have been set in stone. Boundaries are artificial barriers as long as you write your story well. I would define that as not being able to take my eyes off the page as a reader because the writer has got me riveted.
List three key takeaways you hope readers will have from HIGH STAKES.
I hope they’ll have an understanding of three different eras of history that HIGH STAKES presents—the times of Vlad Dracula (1460), the period of the manufacture of the Stradivarius violin and its transport to the rest of the world through the Silk Road, and the present day and age. Secondly, the success or failure of a book rests upon its characters, and I hope to make my readers care about my characters and look forward to seeing them in action. Finally, I hope reading this book will be a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting experience, so much so that readers can’t wait for the next adventure.
After graduation from Harvard College, Boston College Law School, and Harvard Law School, and several years of practice as a trial attorney, John Dobbyn began a 40-year career as professor of law at Villanova Law School. His fiction writing began with over 20 stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine before the publication by Oceanview Publishing of six legal thriller novels: Neon Dragon (Chinese Tong); Frame Up (international art theft and forgery); Black Diamond (horse racing); Deadly Diamonds (blood diamonds); Fatal Odds (illicit trade in endangered animals); and now High Stakes (treasure of Vlad Tepes Dracula).
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.