High-profile lawyer and legalist is the description that comes most rapidly to mind when hearing the name Alan M. Dershowitz. A professor at Harvard Law School and a noted appellate lawyer and columnist, he has represented such clients as Claus von Bülow, O. J. Simpson, Anatoly Shcharansky, Michael Milken, Mia Farrow, and Mike Tyson. But Dershowitz is also a bestselling author of numerous nonfiction and fiction titles.
He has published three novels featuring prominent defense attorney Abe Ringel. The first, Advocate’s Devil, from 1995, finds Abe defending a young basketball star accused of rape. The second, Just Revenge, has Abe defending a Holocaust survivor who takes revenge on the man who killed his pregnant wife, son, and extended family in Lithuania in 1942. Publishers Weekly praised the “dramatic and tragic events that frame the plot, and the intensity of [the author's] moral argument” in that novel. In the just-published The Trials of Zion, Abe’s daughter Emma, a recent Yale grad in law, plans to help defend a young Palestinian accused of setting off an explosion that has killed several of the world’s leaders in Israel. Eventually Abe is drawn into the proceedings; he must win the Palestinian’s case or risk losing his daughter forever. Playwright David Mamet noted of this work that Dershowtiz writes “a real good rip-snorter” of a thriller. Booklist also commended this title, writing that Dershowitz “combines exciting action with courtroom drama and a lesson in the history and politics of the Middle East … [in] a thought-provoking page-turner.”
Alan, it’s a real pleasure having you on Scene of the Crime. Perhaps we could start out with a discussion of your connection to the settings of the Abe Ringel novels, especially the most recent, The Trials of Zion.
What things about these places make them unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Cambridge is a center of the academic world, certainly in the United States. And Israel is the center of the spiritual world and a focal point of great conflict and passion.
Did you consciously set out to use Israel as a “character” in your book, or did this grow naturally out of the story?
The story grew out of the location. I consciously set out to write a book about the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I explicitly decided to travel to the various locations in Israel before I wrote about them. I wanted to be familiar with relevant details and to make the background as realistic as possible and a part of the story.
How do Abe and his daughter interact with their surroundings?
My protagonists are not native to Israel and one of them gets kidnapped and taken to a part of the West Bank that is completely alien to her. I self consciously try to create a sense of comfort in familiar surrounding and discomfort in unfamiliar ones.
I have had very positive reactions from several Israelis. I was very pleased when an American reader asked me whether I am more supportive of Israel or Palestinians in the conflict. My goal was to create positive characters on all sides.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I am sure I have but I’m not aware of any. Since I haven’t been to Jericho in about 40 years, I’m sure my descriptions of that area contain goofs.
Of the Abe Ringel novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“Rzeszow, Poland 1884
“Shimshon recounted how the Enlightenment had largely bypassed the small Polish town the Jews called Raisha. It was not quite a shtetel, nor was it a full-fledged city. Its population of fourteen thousand in the mid 1880s comprised eight thousand Poles and six thousand Jews. It was a place where superstitions, omens, curses, and talismans held a higher status than reason, science, or liberal education. These primitive beliefs, with slightly different contents, were among the few factors that united the Jews with their Polish Catholic neighbors.
“A handful of men and women rejected the old way, and most of them became outcasts and left for Krakow, Warsaw, or Prague, where reason and secularism were more respected.
“The Jews of Raisha spoke Yiddish, though most could read the Hebrew of the prayer book and the Bible. Many spoke a smattering of Polish—enough for them to do business with their Polish neighbors. Jewish men were tailors, goldsmiths, tavern keepers, hatmakers, teachers, furriers, musicians, butchers, and tile makers. Some were beggars, and a few were rabbis.
“Shimshon described the Jewish women of Raisha as balabustas—keepers of the home. This elicited a whispered retort from Emma: ‘Not to be confused with the modern term ballbusters.’”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My favorite authors are Kafka, and Shakespeare, none of whom really focused on locations.
What’s next for Abe?
I am waiting for my protagonists to tell me.
Thanks again, Alan, for taking the time to speak with Scene of the Crime
For more information on Alan N. Dershowitz, visit his homepage.