All Posts By Michael Kahn

Bringing Up the Rear: The Literary Mic Drop

By Posted on 0 Comments 4 min read 2137 views

Many years ago, my agent offered me the following advice: “The most important sentence of your novel is the first one. The second most important sentence is the last one.”

There certainly have been vivid, memorable first lines, many of which we can quote by heart–from “Call me Ishmael” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” in George Orwell’s 1984. At the top my list is the first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Each one accomplishes the author’s goal: to entice you into reading the next sentence, and, hopefully, the one after that, and so on and so on and so on.

But that final line–the one just before the curtain comes down–is even more important. The reader needs it for a sense of closure. And the author needs it to encourage the reader to pick up his or her next novel. It is the literary equivalent of the mic drop.

The masters of the literary mic drop have crafted some memorable closing lines. There is The Great Gatsby, which F. Scott Fitzgerald ends: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain ends: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” And my favorite, from James Joyce’s novella The Dead: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

And more often–as is the case with The Great Gatsby and so many other novels–that last line is perfectly set up by a lead in. Perhaps the most famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in the back of a taxi:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

No genre needs a good final sentence more than the mystery novel, whose goal is to bring order back into the world by the final chapter. I decided to flip to the back page of some of my favorite mystery novels. Here’s what I found:

One of Raymond Chandler finest novels is The Long Goodbye, which he ends with a two-sentence paragraph that beautifully captures the moment and our protagonist:

I never saw any of them again–except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon ends with Sam Spade seated at his desk as someone enters the outer office. His secretary Effie Perine quickly goes into the outer office, shutting the door behind her:

When she came back in again she shut it behind her. She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost imperceptiby. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

And then there is this powerful and poignant closing line, which comes from the one mystery novel that you will never find in the mystery section of your bookstore. I refer to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom–one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century and, as I’ve previously written, one of the great murder mysteries in American literature. It is the tale of the rise and mysterious death of Thomas Sutpen at the end of the Civil War, told entirely in flashbacks narrated decades later, mostly by Quentin Compson to his roommate at Harvard University. This is the same Quentin Compson whose subsequent suicide occurs in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner closes Absalom, Absalom with Quentin’s anguished thoughts:

I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

And, finally, I end with the ending from my third novel Firm Ambitions–an ending I borrowed from my favorite Hollywood ending. Rachel Gold, having concluded a nasty divorce case that morphed into a murder case, receives a surprise phone call from Max Feigelbaum, who she describes as “a tanned and ruthless little ferret who wore dark glasses and Italian suits and was one of the most feared divorce lawyers in Chicago.” He wants her to handle a divorce case in St. Louis. Rachel tries to beg off, explaining, “I’m getting out of divorce work.” He tells her she’ll “want to make an exception for this one. It’s a beaut.”

As he explains the case, Rachel feels her pulse quicken. “Asking a trial lawyer if she wants to take part in a good courtroom battle,” she explains, “is like asking a ballplayer if he wants to take part in a World Series.”

She finally agrees, and the novel ends:

“Maxie,” I said with a smile, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


Bromance: My Favorite Fictional Couple

By Posted on 0 Comments 3 min read 624 views

I recently received a question on the Goodreads website asking who was my favorite fictional couple, and why.

My first reaction was to flip through all of the literary lovers I’d encountered over the years–a list that includes:

  • Romeo & Juliet;
  • Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy;
  • Lancelot & Guinevere;
  • Odysseus & Penelope;
  • Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler;
  • Cleopatra & Marc Antony; and, for you mystery fans,
  • Nick & Nora Charles.

When I’d finished the sorting and the weighing, I decided that my favorite romantic couple was Beatrice & Benedict from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. We, the audience, are totally captivated as we watch this witty couple–between volleys of nasty but funny barbs–gradually, painfully, and incredulously realize that they are in love. One quick sample from a much larger scene:

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

Benedict: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedict: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor.

But then I stopped to read the question again. Hmm . . . I wasn’t asked to name my favorite romantic couple. No, I was asked to name my fictional couple. So I scrapped my list, leaned back in my chair, and mulled it over.

And that’s when I had my epiphany. I realized that my favorite fictional couple–or, more precisely, my favorites couples–were all pairs of men. Bromances, if you will. That list includes:

  • Huck Finn & Jim;
  • Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson;
  • Frodo and Sam (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series);
  • Hamlet and Horatio; and
  • some of the many bromance pairs from the modern mystery genre, including Spenser & Hawk and Dave Robicheaux & Clete Purcell and my own creations, Rachel Gold & Benny Goldberg (although Rachel and Benny would not technically qualify as a bromance).

But then I paused and realized that my favorite bromance pair, and probably the inspiration for all the fictional bromance pairs since then, entered the literary world in 1605 in Miguel de Cervantes’ great picaresque novel. Yes, I refer to Don Quixote & Sancho Panza.

Those who’ve read the novel know that Don Quixote is the tragicomic hero whose quest in life is to revive the noble profession of knight-errantry. Though he is dignified, proud, and idealistic, he is also an absurd and insane old man. By contrast, Sancho is the peasant laborer that Don Quixote takes on as his squire when he sets out on his adventures. Sancho begins as the greedy, illiterate sidekick but ends up the wisest and most honorable man in the novel. And the funniest. The pair’s conversations along the journey are hilarious and perceptive and just plain fun. Theirs is a truly inspiring bromance. And thus they are my favorite literary couple.

What about you? Who is your favorite?


A Poolside Lesson

By Posted on 3 Comments 4 min read 817 views

Browsing through some older copies of Missouri Lawyers Weekly, I came across an essay of mine from a few years ago on a subject that many of us struggle with, namely, how to find a balance between your work and your life. Re-reading it brought back the vivid memories that had inspired the essay, and reminded me again how important it is for each of us to find that balance before it’s too late. Here is the text of that essay:

There’s a saying that no lawyer on his deathbed ever wished he’d billed more hours. I wonder, though, how many lawyers on their death beds wish they’d billed fewer hours. You don’t want to be that lawyer. You don’t want to look back with regret over that canceled family vacation, those missed concerts, that romantic trip to the Greek Isles you kept promising your partner, those guitar or baking lessons you kept meaning to take, or any of the other experiences you missed on that one-way ticket called life.

I learned that lesson as a young associate in Chicago. I learned it in the most vivid way imaginable. Indeed, if I tried to put that experience into a novel, my editor would delete it as way too contrived. But it happened, and it haunts me to this day.

I had traveled to Atlanta with a partner in the law firm. Let’s call him Mr. P. He was to argue the federal appeal of an antitrust case I’d worked on with him. Mr. P. was a legendary workaholic — at the office late most nights, billed close to 2,800 hours a year, traveled on the road on business three weeks a month. The oral argument ended at 10:30 that morning, and we were booked on a 5 p.m. flight back to O’Hare.

Having traveled with Mr. P. before, I knew the drill: cab to the airport, try to book an earlier flight, and then off to the American Airlines Admirals Club so he could dictate letters and make calls. But as I stepped to the curb to flag a cab, he said, “Wait.”

I turned, curious.

He had an odd smile. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said, glancing up at the bright blue sky. “Let’s go back to the hotel. They’ve got an outdoor pool and restaurant. We can have a nice lunch, sit by the pool, maybe take a dip, just take it easy.”

Stunned, I mumbled something about not having a swimsuit. He told me he was sure we could buy two pairs in the hotel lobby. And we did. We had lunch out by the pool and lolled around until it was time to change and head to the airport. I only wished I’d brought a camera, since no one at the firm would believe that I’d spent the day poolside with Mr. P.

On the flight back to Chicago, he told me that he’d had a revelation as he left the courthouse that morning. “I’ve traveled around the world on business,” he said. “I’ve been in every major capital in Europe and Asia. And on all those trips I never took any time off. I’ve been to Paris five times and never been to the Louvre. I spent two weeks on a deal in Beijing and never even saw the Great Wall.” He shook his head. “No more. Life is too short. You need to take time to stop and smell the roses.”

Back at O’Hare, as we said our goodbyes at the cab stand, he reminded me of the conference call with the client the next day at 2 p.m. to discuss the oral argument. “Let’s meet in my office at one,” he said as he climbed in the waiting cab. “We can go over our notes.”

I watched his cab pull away, still amazed at our afternoon. I never saw him again.

According to the receptionist, he arrived at the office the next morning at 7 a.m. As usual, he worked with his door closed. At around 11 that morning, another lawyer knocked on his door and, hearing no answer, opened it. There on the carpet, face down, eyes open, was Mr. P. The autopsy revealed he died of a heart attack.

Many years later in St. Louis, I received a reminder of that lesson. My teacher was a teenage boy from Bilbao, Spain. He was an exchange student who spent a month with our family, a delightful boy of 16. At the end of his stay, I asked him if he’d noticed any major differences between life in the United States and life in Spain.

He thought about it for a moment and said he’d noticed two. The first was that in America many people ate alone in their cars, at their desks or in front of their TV.

“In my country,” he said, “most people eat together around a table.”

And the second difference? I asked.

He paused, trying to find the right words. “In your country,” he said, “people live to work. In my country, people work to live.”

Work to live. Not a bad credo.

How’s This for a Stamp of Approval!

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 561 views

Sometimes my life in the world of the law overlaps nicely with my life in the world of the arts. I have been lucky over the years to represent some extraordinary artists, many of whom have become friends as well.

One such artist is the acclaimed international photographer (and laid-back dude) Lou Bopp, whose deep appreciation of the Mississippi Delta blues and its musicians has earned him many honors, the most recent of which–officially announced by the United States Postal Service just before Thanksgiving–I celebrate in a blog post on my law firm’s website right here.

Enjoy. And congratulations, Lou!

A Thanksgiving Meditation From Nearly Two Millennia Ago

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 566 views

On this Thanksgiving holiday, as we each pause to give thanks, I turn to a wise piece of advice from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose book of meditations has remained in print (to the envy of all authors) since his death in 180 A.D.

Here is that Thanksgiving advice, from book seven of his Meditations:

Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.

Not bad, eh? And as long as we’re on the subject, here’s another of my favorite meditations, this from book four:

The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him everyone himself will be soon dead also, and in the course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched. Furthermore, even supposing that those who remember you were never to die at all, nor their memories to die either, yet what is it to you? Clearly, in your grave, nothing; and even in your lifetime, what is the good of praise–unless maybe to subserve some lesser design. Surely, then, you are making an inopportune rejection of what Nature has given you today, if all your mind is set upon what men will say of your tomorrow.

The Dead Hand and the Jewish Book Festival — 1:30 pm on Monday, November 14

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 543 views

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]Should be a fun afternoon at the St. Louis Jewish Book festival on Monday, November 14. I will be one of three authors on the Missouri’s Own Panel, where each of us will have a chance to discuss our latest book, read a passage, and the participate in a panel discussion hosted by my friend Dick Weiss.

Hope to see you there!


An Evening with Scott Turow–November 6th at 7:30 PM

By Posted on 0 Comments 2 min read 706 views

I have been a fan of Scott Turow and his writings ever since publication of his first book, One L, a work of nonfiction subtitled The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. That book came out during my own first year at Harvard Law School. As you can imagine, I was hardly the only One L at Harvard to purchase a copy of the book that year. Ten years later, Scott published his first novel, Presumed Innocent–and three decades later it remains at the top of most lists of the greatest legal thrillers of all time.

Scott and I have had several overlaps in our lives. He was four years ahead of me at Amherst College and one year ahead of me at Harvard Law School. We both began our legal careers in Chicago–Scott at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, me at a litigation boutique that specialized in media litigation. And now my daughter Hanna and her family live one block away from where Scott raised his children in the Village of Wilmette, a North Shore suburb of Chicago.

Our next overlap will occur at 7:30 on Sunday, November 6th. That’s when Scott will take the stage as the featured speaker in the keynote event that kicks off his year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. I will be honored to take the stage with him to conduct a conversation on a wide range of topics that will range from his early days as a prosecutor in a high profile series of criminal cases against various Cook County judges to his experiences with Hollywood in the motion picture production of Presumed Innocent to his occasional gig as a singer in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a quirky rock band that includes Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and other writers.

It’s sure to a fun and fascinating evening with a fun and fascinating guy. And even though Scott is, alas, a fervent Cubs fan, he is otherwise a true mensch.

A Delightful Evening with Two Great Guys Who Happen to Be Terrific Writers

By Posted on 0 Comments 2 min read 633 views

Writing a novel is, by definition, a lonely avocation. It’s just you and your computer–or just you and that legal pad. Thus any opportunity to hang out with a fellow writer is a welcome opportunity–but sometimes it can be a truly delightful opportunity. And that’s what I experienced last Monday night when I took the stage with two superb mystery authors who also happen to be genuinely charming, interesting, and funny guys.

First, some background:

On October 10th, the St. Louis County Library hosted an event it labeled a Celebration of the Poisoned Pen, which featured three authors published by Poisoned TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]Pen Press. In addition to yours truly, the featured authors were Jeffrey Siger and Reavis Wortham. Up until that evening, I knew them only by their words. Jeffrey is the author of the Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series set in Greece, and Reavis is the author of the Red River series set in East Texas in the 1960s. Poisoned Pen Press has recently published the latest in each of our mystery series, mine being The Dead Hand.

800px-Toasted_Ravioli-650x488[1]The three of us met for dinner beforehand with my wife Margi. As their St. Louis host, I insisted that our meal begin with an appetizer found on the menu of every Italian restaurant and sports bar in St. Louis–and virtually nowhere else on the planet. I refer, of course, to toasted ravioli. They both enjoyed it.

As I soon learned, each of us shared something else in common besides our publisher. Reavis and I both started our careers as public school teachers–Reavis in Dallas, me in Chicago. As for Jeffrey, in addition to our Pittsburgh connection (his hometown and my father’s hometown), we were both lawyers. Jeffrey, however, has been lucky enough to quite his day job and now spends half of each year on the Greek island of Mykonos. Not too shabby.

The rest of the evening was a delight. Each of us read a passage from our latest novel, talked a little about how we got  our start in the writing world, and fielded several interesting questions from our audience, including one toasted-ravioli inquiry directed to my two fellow authors, each of whom wisely (and I hope honestly) praised that St. Louis appetizer.

I confess I was eyeing Reav’s ten-gallon hat with envy. I also contemplated that mustache of his, but my wife Margi quickly nixed that idea.

I’m hoping I get to see both of these fine men again before too long. In the meantime, I’d recommend sampling a book from each of their mystery series.


Fun Book Event at the St. Louis County Library–October 10th

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 529 views

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]I am looking forward to this Monday night, October 10th–and not just because the 2nd Presidential Debate will finally be behind us (although the cable news networks will no doubt still have their panels of “experts” seated around the table and bloviating on who won).

No, Monday night is a special one for me because I get to be on a panel with two wonderful mystery authors who are also published by Poisoned Pen Press: Jeffrey Siger and Reavis Wortham. While my Rachel Gold mysteries are set in the quirky but admittedly less-than-exotic locale of St. Louis, Missouri, Jeffrey’s mysteries transport us to Greece while the latest from Reavis takes us back to the 1960s in the rural Northeast Texas community of Center Springs.

The three of us will each talk about and read a passage from our latest mysteries and, of course, sign your copy.

So come join us! It’ll be fun.

Groucho Marx versus Warner Bros. — A Social Media Smackdown

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 562 views

a_night_in_casablanca-795905039-large1While I am often described as “a lawyer by day and an author at night,” those two occupations have a tendency to blend into one another. All of my novels have featured lawyers and compelling legal issues, and much of my law practice involves the writing of what I hope are compelling works of non-fiction (including my time sheets).

But occasionally, my two occupations become one, which happened recently when I read an article by one of my colleagues, Drey Cooley, on the dangers of “trademark bullying.”

First, some background:

A trademark bully is a big company whose lawyers draft an aggressive and threatening cease-and-desist letter to a little outfit. The goal: terrify the little guy into submission. But just as Goliath met his David, trademark bullies have lately been experiencing what has come to be known as social shaming via the Internet.

Drey’s article reminded me of perhaps the most famous example of social shaming. Incredibly, that social shaming went viral more than a half-century before the Internet. The bully? Warner Bros. Studios. The David? Groucho Marx. The story? Originally I told it on my law firm blog but it certainly contains enough literary merit (via Groucho) to deserve a place right here, too. Enjoy!