Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Mark M. Bello

This week on Indie Monday I’m happy to host Mark M. Bello, an attorney and award-winning author of realistic fiction and political-legal thrillers. Retired from handling high profile legal cases, Mark now gives the public a front-row seat watching victims fight for justice in our civil and criminal justice systems. Mark’s award-winning Zachary Blake Legal Thrillers mirror our times and the events that shape our country. In addition to being an author and veteran attorney, Mark is a member of numerous trial lawyer associations and a feature writer for the Legal Examiner and other popular blog sites. He has written articles for numerous publications and made guest appearances on radio and talk shows and multiple podcasts.

This week Mark will talk about his most recent release, Supreme Betrayal.

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

MMB: Supreme Betrayal will be released this Spring. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. In the novel, a right-wing president has nominated an extremist for an open seat on the United States Supreme Court. Unknown to the president and his right wing cronies, the nominee has covered up a youthful indiscretion. When he was a young law student, he sexually assaulted an underaged female high school student. Both are now adults. The candidate will resort to anything, and I do mean anything, to secure his place in history. For the young lady, Hayley Larson Schultz, a seat on the Supreme Court for a sexual predator is a bridge too far.  She contacts Zachary Blake and retains him to help her prevent the nominee from being confirmed. And the legal-political battle royal begins.

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

MMB: The novel was, obviously, inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, however, with one caveat. In my novel, the candidate, Oliver Wilkinson, is clearly guilty, clearly a predator, and the book establishes his guilt and evil. By contrast, while Christine Blasey Ford laid out a compelling case against Kavanaugh, he denied the charges and was never proven guilty of anything. He was confirmed to the Court and took the oath of office in October 2018.

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? 

MMB: My writing process has changed a bit since I wrote my first novel, Betrayal of Faith. I was writing a fictional account of a real case I handled in the 1980s. Writing a book about the case of my career was a “bucket list” item for me and it took me years to bring it to fruition. I was certain that I was a “one and done” author. Along came the 2016 election, and it inspired my second novel, Betrayal of Justice, a novel about a bigoted president of the United States and a political/legal conspiracy to frame an innocent Muslim woman for a murder she did not commit. From that point on, national political/legal events have inspired four more novels, including Supreme Betrayal.  

DL: Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

MMB: I tend to write in fits and spurts—my subsequent novels were completed in less than a year. The pandemic has been a mixed bag for me as an author— it has created expanded writing time because my other business has slowed down, but it also delayed the launch of Supreme Betrayal.

DL: What was the best part about writing this book?

MMB: The best parts of writing these legal thrillers is taking important social justice topics and presenting them to the public in an interesting and though-provoking way. Our individual 7thAmendment rights are being trampled on by large corporations, corporate lobbyists, insurance companies, and politicians and most Americans are not aware of it. I have also enjoyed creating a brash, highly successful, lawyer-protagonist who excels at his craft and can handle the political ramifications as well.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

MMB: This book was no more or no less challenging than the others I have written. You’re an author. I’ve read your Martin Preuss novels and they are terrific. You know how difficult it is to write a novel (very few have done so), let alone six novels. I would suggest that the overall process is difficult: Formulating an idea, creating an outline, writing that first chapter, writing when you don’t feel inspired, writing when your work is not well known—while, at the same time, you write in a difficult competitive environment, creating plot sequences, compelling characters, the whole nine yards. Writing a novel, as you know, is a complex undertaking. That is also why the end result is so satisfying.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

MMB: Readers can purchase Supreme Betrayal at Amazon (https://amzn.to/3j1KMbU) or on my website, at www.markmbello.com. Anyone who pre-order purchases the new novel at my website and mentions this interview will receive an autographed copy when the book is released. Sound good?

DL: Sounds great. Thanks so much for joining us this week, Mark. Any final thoughts you would like to share?

MMB: I would like my Zachary Blake Legal Thriller novels to spur a movement. I’d like people to realize that the issues my novels feature are real—they happen to real people all across America, even the world. Knowledge is power—together we can change things for the better.

 Clergy abuse is still an international scandal almost 50 years after the case that inspired Betrayal of Faith. 

 We have elected a new president, but it took a global pandemic and an insurrection to get people to appreciate how dangerous the rhetoric of his predecessor was. Betrayal of Justice tells the story of a country in turmoil after the election of a narcissistic, bigoted president. I get accused of doing a hit job on our former president, but, if you think about it, he imitated my guy, not the other way around. The book was finished before he became POTUS. 

Betrayal in Blue looks at White Supremacy, criminal law, domestic terrorism, and the blue wall of law enforcement. 

Betrayal in Black does a deep dive into police shootings of innocent black men, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the civil and criminal justice systems might handle such an event. Betrayal High takes a similar look at a school shooting and examines the national and local political/legal ramifications of these tragic events.

As previously indicated, Supreme Betrayal studies financial/political power and sexual assault.

My recent novella, L’Dor V’Dor—From Generation to Generation (available free on my website, www.markmbello.com) is a Holocaust prison camp escape story told by a maternal grandfather to his 13 year old grandson, Zachary Blake, at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. How many real people were lucky enough to have such a conversation with their loved ones?

I am currently working on a Blake legal thriller about our country’s immigration issues.

All of my novels feature real issues affecting real people. Hopefully, my novels inspire others to act, but, more importantly, prevents citizens from becoming victims of the conduct depicted therein. Now, that would be extremely satisfying.

So Why Mysteries?

[This week’s blog post brings back an oldie but a goodie from a few years ago. Enjoy!]

When I give people my elevator speech for the Martin Preuss mysteries (“This is a series of mysteries etc.”), one of the questions I often get is, “Do you have a background in law enforcement?” After I tell them no, I was an English professor and before that a professional writer, their follow-up question is often, “So why mysteries?”

While I understand the question comes out of genuine curiosity, I also suspect it has to do with the stereotype many people have of an English professor who wants to write the Great American Novel. And mysteries, of course, as “genre fiction,” don’t qualify.

What I typically tell people is a condensed version of the truth: I’ve always been drawn to the mystery form, ever since I was a little boy when I would make up my own episodes of Dragnet. There is a vitality in the mystery that I find more compelling than in “literary” work, which tends toward an interiority, dare I say pretentiousness, that is for me less interesting.

(Sorry, I can’t keep myself from using those quotes around “literary.”)

I say that’s a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

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When I was young, I had my own high-fallutin’ literary pretensions. The authors that I read, the ones who were doing what I thought of as the real heavy lifting of literature, were the novelists . . . Tolstoy and Jane Austen, James Joyce, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Bernard Malamud and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write what they did: serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and I prepared for that life in the usual way: took an English degree, read widely, and so on. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about (a story for another time) and no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, at the time my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in my family. It was not a pleasant time.

During summers while in college, I had a job as a movie theatre assistant manager, and when I graduated, my summer job turned full-time; the miserable, alienated college student became a miserable, alienated theatre manager. I took refuge from the disorder of my life in the seedy darkness of movie theatres at night, and in clean, well-lighted libraries during the day, trying to write but also relearning how to read for enjoyment again.

I found myself going back to reading the kinds of books I used to love: mysteries and detective stories. I discovered a world of new authors. I read through Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and especially Ross Macdonald. Except I wasn’t reading them for the mysteries or the puzzles, which didn’t interest me, but rather for what I needed at the time: some notion of how to live.

To me it felt like the detectives in the books I read were virtuous in the old Elizabethan sense of confronting and controlling experience. They were good men and women struggling to live well in a corrupt world, facing down the turmoil and tumult of that world—much as I was trying to do with my own life . . . except they were succeeding, unlike me (or so I felt).

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When in the 70s I came across the works of two Swedish co-authors, Maj Sjoval and Per Wahloo, I knew I had discovered something else that was important about mysteries. The authors of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals, Sjoval and Wahloo had consciously set out to use the detective novel format to comment on changes in their society. I realized that, far from being fluff, good mysteries could have as much depth to them as the most literary novel—in addition to being enjoyable, energetic reads. (The name of my main character, Martin Preuss, is partly an homage to Sjoval and Wahloo’s detective, Martin Beck.)

The more I read, the more I saw that good mysteries were novels of personality; great mysteries, said Henning Mankell, the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, were novels of society seen through the lens of crime. I saw how mysteries could be a powerful form for personal as well as social transformation.

Many years later, when I again started seriously writing long works of fiction after a long hiatus (yet another story for another time), mysteries were my natural go-to.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, and baser instincts seem to reign, we are badly in need of transformation.

We need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. If we’re going to survive, we need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

Writing mysteries is a way for me to do that. It allows me to enter the mind and heart of characters under the stresses of crime and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world—and, ultimately, our own.

The great crime writer Don Winslow asks the question in his novels, “How do you live decently in an indecent world?” Mysteries help give me and my readers a way to test the tentative answers to that question that Martin Preuss arrives at throughout the pages of my books. 

Ethics and Killer Copters

In 1985, in the midst of a worklife marked by almost constant professional reinvention, I found myself sitting around a table at an IBM facility near Binghamton, NY, having one of those “What Am I Doing Here?” moments.

I was sitting with two guys from the local branch of IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Their division, as the name suggests, undertook a variety of contracts and projects for the government.

We were talking about a project they wanted me to do. I was then a free-lance writer specializing in, well, anything anybody wanted to hire me for. At the time, I found myself writing a lot of scripts for training and promotional videos, and they wanted me to write one of those.

The project was titled, “The LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor:  Flight Test Report.”

Briefly, the LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor was a complicated system of electronics to improve the reliability and effectiveness of radar, data-linking, and other key operations of helicopters.

Despite the bland title, the project wasn’t just a report on the system’s flight test. The real purpose was a script for a training and sales video for the new helicopter system. The script had to sell the system, which meant I had to buy into its value, at least for the duration of the project.

The thing was, this wasn’t just for any kind of helicopters. It was for what are called “destroyer helicopters.”

And as that name suggests, these were weapons of war. Helicopters that blow stuff up and kill people.

This was a few years after the Falkland Islands War (look that up if you never heard of it), and as the two guys from IBM were giving me information I needed to write the script, they were getting more and more excited about the capabilities of their product. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were literally whooping and hollering and flying their hands like helicopters over the table and bouncing up and down in their chairs talking about how GREAT this system was at killing things, and what the Brits could’ve done if they’d had these little babies in the Falklands.

Seriously, it was like something out of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So here’s the scene: me—a young writer, pacifist, Viet Nam war protester, what my first roommate in college (an engineer) disparaged as an “arty type”—sitting in the room with two suits who were acting like they were crazy.

So what was I doing there, you may ask?

As I said, I was then a free-lance writer. When you’re a free-lancer, you wake up every day and you’re basically unemployed, which means you have to scrounge for work constantly. And therefore, like most free-lancers, I was mostly broke. The IBM job wouldn’t make me rich, but it would help to stabilize my bank account until something else came along.

And anyway, I told myself, it was just a job; my real writing, the writing that mattered, was the fiction I was learning how to write.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a quote from Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, arguably (along with his reality tv show) the thing most responsible for creating the pernicious myth of Donald Trump as a successful businessman.

“Trump is the most purely evil human being I’ve ever met,” Schwartz said.

My first thought was, “And thanks for doing your bit to help him con the country, Tony.”

But then I thought, even if he knew how awful Trump was, Schwartz probably had no idea somebody like Trump could ever become president, and anyway he was doing exactly what I did when I took on a job writing about destroyer helicopters: doing what you have to to get by.

I don’t know how Schwartz felt about his project, but I felt terrible about mine. I knew it was wrong, and I had tried to persuade myself that my financial situation would somehow excuse it.

Except it didn’t.

I wasn’t the same afterwards. I learned, in a way I had known really only theoretically before, that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral action. In particular, for writers, there is no such thing as ethically neutral writing. It all has consequences for which we are responsible, no matter what kind of writing we do.

I have left that life behind, but I’m still writing, and I’m writing in an area that is fraught with ethical conflicts. I’m a mystery writer: I write about crime; I write about violence and its effects. I write about things that bad people do.

In my Martin Preuss mystery series, I’m constantly dealing with the question: Is it possible to portray unethical actions ethically? Don Winslow puts it another way: “Is it possible to live decently in an indecent world?”

I can’t say I’m doing it well, but I think the answer to both questions is yes. The key for me is to write with a consciousness about about how I portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem—not only violence in action, but in language and thought as well.

Those of us who work in a genre that is so associated with violence have a special duty to treat it responsibly, to treat it, that is, ethically.

This means not only not glorifying it, but showing the truly awful cascading consequences of violence on everyone associated with it, perpetrators and victims and bystanders. And, in my case, to make sure the books present a clear ethical alternative to the unethical actions that flood my fictional world.

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, at this particularly dreadful moment in history, we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically—and ethically—into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. We need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

I try to do that in my mysteries. The books go beyond simply offering readers a tricky puzzle to pass the time with, and instead help them to enter the minds and hearts of my characters, and see and understand the world through those eyes, too.

For those of you who know my work, you might also recognize that Toby, my main character’s profoundly handicapped son, is (among all the other purposes he serves in the series) an important ethical touchstone for his father. And, I hope, for my readers.

A few years ago I was at a writers’ conference and we were talking about killing off characters. I made some remarks about the rather cavalier way people were talking about doing away with their characters, and one of the other writers called me “the moral compass” for the group.

She was kidding, but I loved that. I welcomed it, in fact. My moral compass might not have started forming with those two guys jumping up and down about the joys of killing helicopters, but that day certainly got me headed in the right direction.