JUSTICE IS NOT ONLY BLIND. SHE IS DEAF, DUMB, AND OBVIOUSLY HIGH.
by James Lincoln Warren
I was thinking about writing a column about nail-on-the-head writing, why it’s usually a bad thing, and how to avoid it. So I came up with one of the deadliest dull beginnings I could dream up:
My name is John Smith and I work for a celebrity lawyer, E. Laurence Mulkern. It’s not much fun, but it’s a job.
That done, the idea was to dress this up a little, to show how to provide the same information in an entertaining way. So here is v.2.0:
“Who, him?” I heard E. Laurence Mulkern say behind my back. “That’s just Smith, he works here. Ignore him.”
I turned on my heel to see who it was who should be ignoring me. A prospective client, of course, provided her legal complaint was outrageous enough get my boss on the eleven o’clock news, but otherwise, prospective prey—if she was young and pretty enough. And she was.
“Yep,” I said, “John Smith’s the name, and no Pocahontas jokes, if you don’t mind. Not that I’m personally offended by somebody trotting out that old warhorse now and again—after all, some of the nicest people I know have no imagination. But my boss here being an attorney, well, like most shysters he takes everything just a little too literally. So if he got it into his brain that I’m somehow connected to the Native American community, he’d try to lever it into representing the casino. Casinos have money.”
“I don’t know why I don’t fire your ass,” Mulkern said.
“Yes, you do,” I replied. I sipped my coffee and looked innocent.
And suddenly I lost interest in writing a column about dressing up nail-on-the-head writing. I was suddenly more interested in John Smith and E. Laurence Mulkern, whose relationship was drawn from life.
Have you worked for an unjust incompetent self-inflated jerk in love with his own authority?
Yeah, me too.1
I remember my father reading The Peter Principle (“in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”) in 1969 when it was first published, and his claiming that it explained why his boss was such an . . . well, he used a scatological term meaning an unpleasant person, and Dad wasn’t prone to scatological expressions. I’ve had more than my share of similar experiences since both in and out of the military, the moral of which is there are [insert plural scatological expression here] everywhere.
Such bosses are well represented in detective fiction, especially in police departments, where there is the office-bound bureaucrat doing his level best to interfere with the hard-working detective-on-the-street’s investigation. Perhaps its finest manifestation is Superintendent Mullett in the long-running British detective show A Touch of Frost, but it’s a staple. In science fiction, there are the delightful Retief stories by Keith Laumer. There have been all kinds of comic manifestations on TV and in print: The Office, Spin City, Dilbert, and others.
Until John Smith came along, I’d never written about a bad boss, but I can see E. Laurence Mulkern very clearly in my mind. And now I need to find out exactly what John Smith does for him so I can write a story featuring the two of them. My guess is that Smith is a paralegal who’s supposed to be doing clerical stuff but winds up doing investigative work because he’s the only one in the office with any brains. But I’m not sure. I have to walk a fine line here with Mulkern, because if he’s too incompetent or corrupt, he’ll get disbarred, and that would put Smith out of a job. Likewise, I can’t have Smith committing UPL (Unauthorized Practice of Law) because I don’t want him going to prison.
My guess is that in his eponymous law firm, Mulkern also has a succession of young fire-breathing female lawyers in his employ who do all the actual legal heavy lifting. With every story in the series, this amanuensis would be someone new, since the previous young fire-breathing female lawyer will have quit. Nobody with any self-respect could work for Mulkern for very long, except Smith.
This could work.
Ideas come from everywhere, and frequently when you least expect it. Here’s one that was based on experience. Although unlike Smith, I never had the guts to mouth off to any of my bad bosses.
At least, not twice.