“One of the reasons I wrote a stand-alone was to break me out as a bigger household name,” John Lescroart told me during a visit to his “writing room” (a bungalow in Davis) in December 2016.
The New York Times best-selling legal-thriller novelist was referring to Fatal, published in 2017.
Now he’s returned to his trio of mainstay characters in Poison, his 28th book. For fans, it’s comforting to once again follow Dismas Hardy, Wyatt Hunt and Abe Glitsky as they carom around San Francisco, taking risks and figuring out who murdered wealthy businessman Grant Wagner.
Hardy is an ex-cop and bartender-turned-criminal defense attorney; Hunt is Hardy’s private investigator; and Glitsky is a homicide detective. They’re longtime colleagues and friends.
This time out, Hardy, now recovered from gunshot wounds, is distracted from his reverie of retiring to help a former client defend herself against a murder charge—poisoning her boss, a wealthy businessman. Or maybe the killer is one of the deceased’s heirs, who have conflicts of their own. The list of suspects grows when two more murders are committed. Suddenly, Hardy realizes he could well be a target himself.
Lescroart is co-president of the International Thriller Writers organization and recipient of its Silver Bullet Award for philanthropy. The literacy-advocacy group Libraries Unlimited included him in its book, The 100 Most Popular Thriller and Suspense Authors. His novels have been translated into 20 languages in more than 75 countries, selling more than 10 million copies.
He’s also something of a renaissance man—writer, musician, avid fly fisherman, oenophile, gourmand, seasoned cook, co-host of a private book club and, as his business card once announced, “bon vivant.” “Novels are just an excuse to write about food,” he once told me over lunch at Café Bernardo. “I try to enjoy life.”
As for his name pronunciation, he says, “It’s ‘LESS-kwah,’ not ‘MORE-skwah.’”
Visit him at www.johnlescroart.com.
Lescroart’s book-launch party will be at 6 pm. Feb. 13 at Odd Fellows Hall, 415 2nd St., Davis, featuring wine, music and plenty of schmoozing.
Q: In Poison, you’re able to take the threads of seemingly unrelated back stories and homicides and weave them into whole cloth that eventually presents a clear pattern. Shall we say that requires focus? Or is the scenario more like an organic juggling act?
A: I’ve always been a big fan of mysteries where two or more seemingly unrelated events are actually inextricably linked, and how they fit together forms the central question of the plot. It’s even better when I’m starting to put down some early scenes and I don’t have any idea how these events might be related. This goes on the theory that if I’m fooled by what comes next, my readers will be similarly fooled as well. And if I can pull off that feat, I’m probably going to have a satisfying book.
That’s what happens in Poison. Three or four separate stories converge, most unexpectedly. And Hardy’s side of this mystery—what really started off driving the plot—was something I’d never really explored before. Which is the big family riven by secrets, passions and emotions. Being one of seven children myself, I know that territory well. Everybody loves a big family drama, and I was delighted to have stumbled onto this one.
Q: Readers have come to feel they know Hardy, Glitsky and Hunt. What kind of input do your fans offer about this familiar cast of characters?
A: My readers tend to feel a connection with them, as though they are real people (as, of course, they are!).
The good side of that connection is the implied contract I have with my readers to keep these characters acting within their own context. It keeps me on my toes, making sure that, for example, Glitsky doesn’t swear and he drinks tea, not coffee.
The down side is that you need your characters to walk on the edge sometimes, and if my readers don’t agree with that, I hear about it. Oh, and heaven forfend that I need to kill one of them. Yikes!
Q: Of those three characters, who would you prefer to hang out with?
A: This is a trick question, guaranteed to tick off readers who don’t agree with my favorite, as if I could have one. They are all my children, and on any given day I love each of them, sometimes one a little more than the others.
Q: Hardy is getting a lot of pressure from his wife, Frannie, to retire. What does that portend for the series?
A : Frannie is all over Hardy to quit because she realizes, and rightly so, that his line of work is inherently physically dangerous. After all, he’s been shot three times in these books. The threat is real and present. And when it turns out that their son, Vincent, is involved with the case and might be in danger himself, Frannie goes ballistic. And who can blame her?
As to the rest of the series, let’s just say that this theme of the danger of the actual work—especially vis-a-vis the Hardy children—will continue to play a major role in Hardy’s life, his commitment to his job and the state of his marriage.
Q: Hardy’s interaction with his son, Vinnie, a tech guy, really shows the different dynamics of two generations—high-tech savvy vs. old-school, with a Grand Canyon-size gap between the two.
A: This theme popped up intrinsically on page one of Poison and winds up being a major driver of the plot. As the book progressed, I found this true-to-life dichotomy essential, and more and more fun to write because that gap relates to my own personal life as well.
In researching to get the tech stuff right, I was fortunate enough to spend a day on the Facebook campus, immersing myself in that culture, which was extremely interesting, albeit much like a visit to a foreign country.
Q: As usual in your series, you touched on San Francisco dining, with scenes set in the Pacific Café, Boulevard and Sam’s Grill, your personal favorite. But you also take us to Lou the Greek’s, which is fictitious and has made many appearances in your novels. What’s the deal with that?
A: Readers often ask if the restaurants in my books are real, and I always say that if it’s a good place, such as the Pacific Café, Boulevard or Sam’s, I include it as is. If it’s a place where you stand a good chance of getting food poisoning, I’ll change the name.
Which is what I did with Lou the Greek’s. (Yes, there are some bad restaurants in San Francisco.) It’s a place where I can write goofy stuff and have some fun on days when the plot thing isn’t advancing itself.
Q: The first murder victim in Poison was killed with “the queen of poisons,” aconite, also known as wolf’s bane and devil’s helmet.
A: The research on that was great. In all things medical, I defer to my personal physician at Kaiser, John Chuck. I asked him what he knew about poison and he turned me on to one of his colleagues, Dr. Steven R. Offerman, an expert in poisons and toxicology. Steve and I spent a very productive and fun morning at one of Sacramento’s coffee shops, at the end of which I had a very good idea of the bones of my story and especially the role aconite could play in it.
Q: In each of your legal thrillers, we learn more and more about the inner workings of the justice system, from the jails to the courtrooms. It’s not a pretty picture.
A: The criminal justice system has a host of people—cops, bailiffs, clerks, DAs and PDs, administrators and judges—who work hard and long in often dangerous situations, and who try to make the system work. But budget concerns, questionable legislation, ridiculous politics, overcrowding and bad apples of all stripes often render the entire environment hostile, ugly and unjust. I try to portray both sides of this reality in my books, but I must admit that’s sometimes a tall order.
Q: Poison was originally titled “The Last Death Penalty.” Why was it changed?
A: Many people are surprised to hear that authors don’t always get to keep the title they submit to the publisher with the manuscript. I’ve had this happen at least 15 times, so I’ve grown a bit of a thick skin about it.
Actually, I love the title Poison. It’s the perfect title for this book. “The Last Death Penalty,” ironically, gave me one of the major turns in the plot, but ultimately did not capture the essence of the book.
Q: Why is there a photo of Alcatraz Island on the cover? Wouldn’t the San Francisco courthouse have been more to the point?
A: This is a similar issue to the one above, in the sense that we authors often don’t get too much input on marketing ideas, such as book covers or titles. Covers and titles don’t have to connect too closely to the actual story of the book. The important thing for publishers is that the title “sings” and the cover art “pops.” Only secondarily does it matter if either of these two elements has something to do with the actual book.
Q: The last time we talked, you seemed irritated but resigned to the lack of a movie or TV deal based on one or more of your books. You said, “To some extent, you’re never under the big umbrella of a ‘made man’ until that happens.” On the other hand, you added, “I’ve purposely decided not to care about that.” Has anything changed?
A: The simple answer is that not much has changed. An author’s online presence continues to be crucial in selling books, and the number of physical books in brick and mortar bookstores (if you can find them) continue to decline.
That said, I would be churlish indeed to complain about what has been to date a tremendously satisfying career. The simple truth is that no one really needs a movie deal to be successful or happy. I couldn’t be in a better place than I am right now.
Q: What can your fans expect next?
A: Just last Friday, I handed in the manuscript of my 2019 book, which currently has a title that I’m almost certain will be changed. And it’s a Dismas Hardy book.
Q: You’re pushing 70. Is it time for another chapter?
A: I’m a brand-new grandfather and that’s a great new chapter all by itself. As to the long term, I’m gratified that for years now I’ve been able to write what I want and when I want to write it. I expect that will continue until I don’t want to do that anymore. But in the meanwhile, I’m enjoying the hell out of this ride.
Q: Career-wise, what has been your greatest triumph? Your biggest regret?
A: My greatest career triumph has been making a living for 25 years as a professional, full-time writer, something I always aspired to and which, for the longest time, proved elusive. (Regret-wise) I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.