Look, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. Die Hard in a courthouse. That was the original idea for Informant.
Well, okay, there’s a little more to it than that. I was also thinking a lot about witnesses, and the relative importance they play in criminal trials despite research showing their lack of reliability. I explored this issue in the first Jessie Black Legal Thriller, Burnout, but I wasn’t quite done with it. What about that least-reliable of all witnesses, the jailhouse snitch? A convicted criminal who becomes, in effect, an unofficial agent of the state, helping to prosecute other accused criminals through the introduction of often dubious “confessions?” I wondered in what circumstances a prosecutor as moral and idealistic as Jessie Black might resort to introducing the testimony of a jailhouse snitch? How would she feel about it? What would her interactions with him or her be like? Scenes started to pop into my mind—always a sign that I’m on the right track—and, excited by the possibilities, I started researching this morally murky practice.
As I was reading about jailhouse snitches—often referred to as informants (see what I did there?)—it occurred to me that they are really a species of con artist. They pose as a cell mate’s friend, as a sympathetic ear, and extract precious testimony (or enough details to lend believability to their own lies) so they can profit from the mark’s naiveté. I thought, what if my informant was a convicted con artist? With those skills, he’d be one of the most effective jailhouse snitches ever, and he’d also be a tricky, manipulative, dangerous character for Jessie to contend with.
That’s how Reggie Tuck (one of my favorite characters) first formed in my head. I added a sense of humor, a peculiar moral code, a little bit of bravery, and I had a character to anchor the second Jessie Black novel.
It didn’t end there, of course. I still had a major loose thread I needed to pick up from the end of Burnout—Jessie’s relationship with Homicide Detective Mark Leary. I’d laid the groundwork for their relationship in Burnout, and I wanted him to return and play an even larger role in this book. But I also wanted Jessie to face the danger inside the courthouse without the help of a second hero. To accomplish that, I needed to keep Leary outside the building. That presented a question, though. What the heck was he going to do for all those pages?
The answer seems obvious now—be a detective. While Jessie fights for her life (and Reggie’s) inside the courthouse, Leary’s mission on the outside is to figure out what’s happening, why it’s happening, who’s behind it, and how to stop them. (I won’t spoil the answers to any of those questions here. You’ll have to read the book!)
I think the end result is a tight, fast-moving thriller. It may not be as thought-provoking as Burnout, which focused more on courtroom tactics and legal maneuvering, but it does explore some interesting legal concepts, such as whether reliance on questionable testimony by prosecutors is problematic. It moves the Jessie / Leary subplot forward in (hopefully) unexpected ways, and it brings some fun new characters into the mix.
Not a bad result for an idea that started as Die Hard in a courthouse.