Saturday, 09 May 2020

Paul Levine is among the authors who can be credited with launching the current wave of Florida mysteries, beginning with To Speak for the Dead, which introduced linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter.

Hard to believe that To Speak for the Dead celebrates its 30th anniversary during 2020.

Seems like yesterday I reviewed that novel, captivated by how well Levine captured the nuances of Florida. And this was long before the public discovered that unique and not to bright species called Florida Man (and Woman).

Levine, the author of 22 novels, won the John D. MacDonald Fiction Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes.

A former trial lawyer, he wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Solomon VS. Lord legal capers. He divides his time between Santa Barbara and Miami.

Levine’s latest book is Cheater’s Game, which digs deep into the college admissions scandal.

In Cheater’s Game, Lassiter returns to the Miami courtroom when his nephew Kip needs his help. Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help wealthy kids gain admission to elite universities. The mastermind of the fraud, Ringle cops a plea to save his own hide and shifts the blame to Kip who's charged with multiple federal crimes.

In this essay for Mystery Scene, Levine takes a look at the college scandal and its influence on his novel.

By Paul Levine

“Have those parents lost their minds?”

That was my first thought when a few dozen well-educated, well-respected, well-off parents were handcuffed, perp-walked and booked for their roles in the college admissions scandal. Then this question. How many other privileged families might be bribing their kids into elite universities with fabricated resumes and rigged test scores?

When the news broke, how many cinnamon lattes were spilled by nervous parents in Beverly Hills, Napa, and Miami?

Call me naive, but I was astonished that parents could be so morally bankrupt as to willingly – and sometimes gleefully, if you listen to wiretaps—cheat, bribe, and lie their children into the University of Southern California rather than, say, Southern Methodist University.
What messages were they sending? That money and connections are the keys to success? That faking it is making it and cheaters win?

Public outrage has been fast and furious with a hefty dose of schadenfreude that rich folks are getting their comeuppance. The news media have covered the cases breathlessly, doubtless because celebrities are involved. A non-fiction book with a weighty title, Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal, by two Wall Street Journal reporters, is due out in July.

A limited series on television is in the works, though I doubt that Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, actors/defendants, will play themselves.

My just-published fictional take on the scandal, Cheater’s Game, brings aging lawyer Jake Lassiter into the fray.

But now I wonder...were any crimes committed? Could the parents’ conduct—clearly immoral and unethical—not necessarily be illegal?

Sure, many parents have already pleaded guilty to fraud. Facing a federal judge in Boston, they expressed remorse in scripted speeches that might be summarized this way: I just loved my child so much, I lost my moral compass. And yes, we all scoffed. The parents’ regretted getting caught, that’s all.

Now, with several cases poised for trial later this year, I wonder if there are shades of gray where I initially saw only black and white. Are the universities themselves at least partly to blame? Did their admissions practices invite this type of fraud?

Defense lawyers claim that both UCLA and the University of Southern California basically sell admissions slots to children of wealthy donors. One case involves Miami investor Robert Zangrillo, charged with using bribery and fraud to ease his daughter’s admission into USC. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the “defense hinges on the theory that USC routinely shunts the children of donors and prospective donors into a VIP pool of applicants.”

Meanwhile, across town, lawyers for the former UCLA soccer coach accused of taking $200,000 in bribes, have fired this broadside: “UCLA’s own internal documents reveal that, for many years, its Athletic Department has facilitated the admission of unqualified applicants through the student-athlete admissions process in exchange for huge ‘donations’ by the students’ wealthy parents.”

Why put the word “donations” in quotation marks?

Simple. The lawyers claim those aren’t donations at all. They’re the ticket prices for admitting unqualified students to UCLA.    

How does any of this affect the fate of the parents who paid bribes and the coaches who accepted them? For any of the defendants to be guilty of fraud, there has to be a victim.

The universities cannot be considered victims, the defense lawyers claim, because they routinely sell admissions slots to donors. The universities actually received some of the bribe money paid by the parents.

It’s a fascinating argument. In fact, it’s the one defense lawyer Jake Lassiter makes in Cheater’s Game.

Here he is, cross-examining a university admissions director:

“This so-called fraud didn’t cost the university any money, correct?”


“Isn’t it true the university actually made money? Millions of dollars funneled to the athletic department.”

“We received money, that’s true.”

“So there’s no real difference in gaining admission through bribery and the university selling admissions slots to the children of high-rolling donors, is there?”

“We don’t sell slots.”

“Then, what’s the difference between bribing the university directly or bribing a coach?”

“Objection! Irrelevant.” The prosecutor was on her feet, ready for battle. “The admissions system isn’t on trial here.”

“Sure it is,” Lassiter said. “That’s exactly what’s on trial.”

With jury trials expected in coming months, we’ll know soon enough what’s on trial.

Whether the defendants are convicted or acquitted, the universities’ reputations will surely suffer.

Perhaps it is time to erect a wall between applicants and donors, between admissions departments and the euphemistically named “development” offices. Let the applicants stand on their own and the donors contribute without a quid pro quo.

In short, let’s make higher education a meritocracy.

Photo: Paul Levine with Bojangles. Photo courtesy Paul Levine

Paul Levine Plays the Cheater's Game
Oline H Cogdill
Wednesday, 06 May 2020

The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign has raised a total of $1,239,595 to support independent bookstores, Bookselling This Week reported.

More than 1,800 donors contributed that was originally to have ended on April 30 but was extended to May 5 to give people more time to donate and, as the organizers said, “save these irreplaceable, vital parts of our communities.”

All the money raised will be given to independent bookstores, who are encouraged to apply for a grant.

The campaign was a partnership of James Patterson, who donated $500,000, the American Booksellers Association and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc).

The campaign began April 2 with a $500,000 donation from James Patterson.

Besides James Patterson, major contributors include:

Rick and Becky Riordan who announced they would give a $100,000 matching grant campaign.

John Grisham and Stephen King, who appeared in conversation on King's YouTube channel to talk about their new books Camino Winds and If It Bleeds, respectively and promote #SaveIndieBookstores. The event was free, but attendees were encouraged to donate to the campaign;
The regional booksellers associations, some of which had matching grant campaigns;

Europa Editions' Our Brilliant Friend event series;

SIB-YA After Dark, an hour-long Twitter Ask Me Anything (AMA);'s #SocksforBinc campaign raised $28,731 with 3,858 pairs of socks sold to more than 1,300 people. And these socks are really cute. had partnered with a group of illustrators, authors and designers to create 10 designs for pairs of socks that it sold to book lovers. One sock designer was the 11-year-old daughter of's creative director. He told her that if she sold more than 1,000 pairs of socks she designed, she could pick anything she wanted from DoorDash. She sold 1,049 pairs.

The minimum price for a pair of socks was $15, but many buyers added donations to their order.  

The #SocksforBinc pitch: “Pull on your socks, put on an audiobook, and stay safe at home while supporting booksellers across the nation.”

The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign is supported by the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and Reese Witherspoon's Book Club. All monies will be given to independent bookstores in mid-May.

For more information, visit #SaveIndieBookstores.

Photo: James Patterson at Murder on the Beach bookstore in Delray Beach, Florida

#SaveIndieBookstores Raises $1.2 Million
Oline H. Cogdill
Saturday, 02 May 2020

The Agatha Awards are presented annually during the Malice Domestic convention and are to honor books and stories first published in the United States during the previous calendar year (January 1-December 31, 2019), either in hardcover, as a paperback original, or as an e-book by an e-publishing firm, according to the website.

But of course, 2020 has forced the conference organizers to have to reevaluate Malice Domestic and, eventually, canceling the conference.

The cancellation was, of course, the right thing to do.

But the authors and their books nominated for an Agatha still must be honored.

The Agatha were announced via Zoom on the evening of May 2, 2020, the same night the awards banquet would have been held.

The Agatha Awards honor the Traditional Mystery, books typified by the works of Agatha Christie. For our purposes, the genre is loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and are not classified as "hard-boiled."

Mystery Scene congratulates the nominees and the winners. We hope next year the awards can be presented live. Authors honored this year also will be honored during the 2021 Malice.

The Agatha Award winners are in bold with a ** in front of the name.

Agatha Award winners
Best Contemporary Novel
**The Long Call by Ann Cleeves (Minotaur)

Fatal Cajun Festival by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Fair Game by Annette Dashofy (Henery Press)
The Missing Ones by Edwin Hill (Kensington)
A Better Man by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Murder List by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)

Best First Mystery Novel
**One Night Gone by Tara Laskowski (Graydon House, a division of Harlequin)

A Dream of Death by Connie Berry (Crooked Lane Books)
Murder Once Removed by S. C. Perkins (Minotaur)
When It’s Time for Leaving by Ang Pompano (Encircle Publications)
Staging is Murder by Grace Topping (Henery Press)

Best Historical Mystery
**Charity’s Burden by Edith Maxwell (Midnight Ink)

Love and Death Among the Cheetahs by Rhys Bowen (Penquin)
Murder Knocks Twice by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
The Pearl Dagger by L. A. Chandlar (Kensington)
The Naming Game by Gabriel Valjan (Winter Goose Publishing)

Best Nonfiction
**The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women by Mo Moulton (Basic Books)

Frederic Dannay, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Art of the Detective Short Story by Laird R. Blackwell (McFarland)
Blonde Rattlesnake: Burmah Adams, Tom White, and the 1933 Crime Spree that Terrified Los Angeles by Julia Bricklin (Lyons Press)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Knopf)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)

Best Children/Young Adult
**The Last Crystal by Frances Schoonmaker (Auctus Press)

Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers by Shauna Holyoak (Disney Hyperion)
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen MacManus (Delacorte Press)
Top Marks for Murder (A Most Unladylike Mystery) by Robin Stevens (Puffin)
Jada Sly, Artist and Spy by Sherri Winston (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Best Short Story
**"The Last Word" by Shawn Reilly Simmons, Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible (Wildside Press)
"Grist for the Mill" by Kaye George in A Murder of Crows (Darkhouse Books)
"Alex’s Choice" by Barb Goffman in Crime Travel (Wildside Press)
"The Blue Ribbon" by Cynthia Kuhn in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible (Wildside Press)
"Better Days" by Art Taylor in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

2020 Agatha Award Winners
Oline H. Cogdill