I think most readers would agree that John Grisham is without question the biggest name in legal thrillers today. That’s been true for two decades. However, Robert K. Tanenbaum is another exceptional writer whose long career (both in the courtroom and in publishing) speaks for itself. Tanenbaum, for my money, always seems to deal with relevant issues while still managing to make his books suspenseful and engaging. His characters are often not politically correct, in the same way that fellow bestseller Nelson DeMille is known for writing characters who speak their mind–even if their opinion isn’t shared by everyone else.
Such is the case with Butch Karp, Tanenbaum’s compelling protagonist who has starred in twenty-nine books, including the newly released Without Fear or Favor.
I’m personally a big fan of Tanenbaum’s work and was thrilled when he agreed to do a Q&A with us. The only hard part for me was whittling down my two pages’ worth of stuff I wanted to ask down to just five quick questions. Special thanks to Robert for providing such thoughtful answers, which you can find below. Enjoy!
TRBS: It’s amazing to think that Karp has been around since you first introduced him in 1987’s No Lesser Plea. Did you ever think back then that you’d still be writing this series thirty years later?
Tanenbaum: “Initially, in fact, I only focused at the very beginning on doing Badge of the Assassin, my first book, a non-fiction, dramatic account of my investigation and prosecution of self-proclaimed members of the Black Liberation Army who assassinated two NYPD officers, Waverly Jones and his partner, Joseph Piagentini. While returning to their squad car parked in a housing project after responding to a domestic disturbance call, Waverly Jones was executed, receiving four shots, at point blank range, to the back of his head and neck. Both killers then put twenty-two bullet holes in Joseph Piagentini as he lay on the ground, pleading for his life: “I have two young children, please don’t kill me.” After the executions, the killers took both officers’ service revolvers and fled to an apartment in the Bronx where they celebrated the assassinations.
“Not until I finished the book, Badge of the Assassin, did I begin to think about doing other books based upon my past experiences in the Manhattan (New York County) District Attorney’s Office where legendary DA Frank S. Hogan presided. I was blessed with the outstanding guidance, from my then editor, the renowned Henry Robbins, who encouraged me to continue actively in the book world.
“After I finished my second nonfiction book, The Piano Teacher, a case involving a psycho-sexual killer, did I think seriously about transitioning from nonfiction into the novel form. In my mind, the main reason for the shift in format was that I did not want to in any way embarrass, or present in an unfavorable light, any of the people who I worked with or opposed in the courtroom setting. So with Henry Robbins’ guidance, I decided the novel form would be the path I would pursue. It is very hard to believe that Without Fear or Favor is the 29th novel in the series. Actually, I think it’s the best! But it would be cool if you read all the others. Together, they are all one family. Yet each book is independent, separate from all others.”
TRBS: This book feels like it’s ripped straight from the headlines. How did you come up with the idea for the plot of Without Fear or Favor?
Tanenbaum: “Most importantly, my books are reflections of my value system that I was taught while growing up in Brooklyn and, certainly, while serving in the Hogan District Attorney’s Office. My goal is to establish a belief system that strives towards excellence and disavows the entire dumbing down of our justice system as a new normal. We are a people who cherish liberty and freedom. In my judgment, the manner in which law enforcement administers justice is a reflection of who we are as a people. We do not accept defining deviance downward (see Daniel Patrick Moynihan), but rather we aspire towards seeking justice by engaging in a sacred and solemn search for truth supported by trustworthy evidence.
“Without Fear or Favor is very much topical, but it is also a reflection of the values that I expressed in Badge of the Assassin.”
TRBS: In my opinion, you’re writing the best courtroom scenes in print today. I know you were a former prosecutor, and the authenticity that you write with is gripping and highly entertaining. Do you ever miss actually being in the courtroom?
Tanenbaum: “Thank you very much for your praise regarding the courtroom scenes. Please know I very much appreciate it. If there were a case that truly interested me with respect to innocence in the face of media condemnation and the judge was apolitical and learned, I would definitely return to the courtroom. But, in general, too many of our courts are over-laden with PC, political characters, which I present to the readership based upon a factual predicate so the reader can come to his/her own conclusions.”
TRBS: Who are a few of your favorite authors, and what was the last great book you read?
Tanenbaum: “The last great book I read was Born Fighting by Jim Webb. It is a blend of expert historiography regarding the Scots-Irish interspersed with autobiographical reminiscences. Jim Webb was a U.S. Senator from Virginia and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968. He fought heroically in Vietnam and was highly decorated as a result of his combat experiences. The book is terrific. It also highlights an area of major concern where many of the Scots-Irish settled in America, Appalachia. For too long in our nation’s history, the Americans who lived in the thirteen Appalachian states have suffered economic plight, inferior public schools, and living conditions without running water or electricity. The Scots-Irish have made major contributions to our culture. They have fought heroically in all our wars, starting with American Revolution. They deserve a heck of a lot better, with respect to their living conditions, than they’ve had to endure.
“Other favorite authors are Ron Chernow, Hamilton, David McCullough, and John Adams.”
TRBS: Lastly, now that Without Fear or Favor is hitting stores, what’s next for you?
Tanenbaum: “I just tipped you off with the whole Scots-Irish, Appalachian story. I am presently working on a non-fiction book that deals with the Scots-Irish culture, the corrupt and sinister Tony Boyle-led United Mine Workers union, and the murders of UMW reformer Jock Yablonski and his wife and daughter. It will be a gut-wrenching, dramatic presentation of the culture, the union, and the heroic and brilliant prosecution of the murderers, including Tony Boyle, by Richard A. Sprague, special prosecutor in the cases. The book will feature garish confrontations between good and evil in the courtroom setting and elsewhere and will, hopefully, keep you glued to your seat and astounded by abject cruelty and unbearable sorrow, but uplifted by triumphant heroism.”
A cross between Law and Order and Blue Bloods, Tanenbaum’s latest thriller, Without Fear or Favor, deals with an issue that’s gotten plenty of media attention in recent years. In the story, Karp, a New York County District Attorney, tells an angry crowd that no decision has been made in regards to police officer Bryce Kim, who used lethal force against an African-American teenager.
Upon hearing that no decision has been made yet, as they continue to gather facts and investigate the situation, the crowd turns violent. A moment later, shots ring out.
Prior to all this, a white cop was shot and killed by a black man. Together, the two incidents spark a dangerous unrest in New York City, but Karp believes there is more to the story. Turns out, he was right, but proving so will be as difficult as it is dangerous.
Fast-paced and timely, Tanenbaum’s latest thriller is well-written, full of suspense, and absolutely sizzles. If you crave a top-notch legal thriller, Tanenbaum’s got you covered!