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Utah attorney switches to writing legal thrillers

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Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

It's never too late to change careers. At least that's the opinion of Gordon Campbell, a trial lawyer with Salt Lake City's largest law firm: Parsons, Behle and Latimer.

At the age of 65, he's going to retire soon from the practice of law and become a writer of legal thrillers. The first one, released this week, is "Missing Witness," a novel set in the legal world of Arizona, where Campbell grew up.

Although he earned his law degree from Arizona State University and practiced in Arizona in the early 1970s, he has spent the majority of his career in Utah.

"It's been a very satisfying career," Campbell said during an interview in his Salt Lake home. "But enjoy it? Most of the time it's been like skiing in a blizzard. Satisfying but not that much fun."

Maybe that's because the thought of becoming a novelist was never far from his mind. "I thought if I didn't write a novel I would die unfulfilled."

In high school, Campbell read Ernest Hemingway's best-known novel, "The Sun Also Rises" and loved it. He was also inspired by Robert Traver's "Anatomy of a Murder" and, in recent years, Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent."

But the novelist he identifies with the most is Robert Penn Warren, whose book, "A Place to Come To," he bought off Sam Weller's bargain table. "I was blown away by it. It inspired me to reread his 'All the King's Men,' then I wrote the only fan letter I have ever written to an author.

"A week later, I got the nicest letter in the world from him — and I hung it on the wall. When I got discouraged with my writing, I'd look at that letter and think, if I could write something that got him to respond to me, maybe I could finish the book."

Campbell started his novel in the spring of 1979. "I took a trailer and parked it on the river in Ketchum, Idaho, for a couple of weeks and got a start on it. A little later, I scraped three months together to work on it and completed an incredibly long and embarrassing first draft — 800 pages. But then I had to go back to work, and the years went by."

The idea for the book stemmed from a lawyer he assisted in Phoenix when he was a law student: John J. Flynn. "He argued the landmark Ernesto Miranda (the right to remain silent) case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A lot of people in the legal field think it was the most important case of the 20th Century.

"Flynn was a fierce trial lawyer. Other lawyers loved to watch him in the courtroom. He was like a rock in front of a judge. But he was a total mess out of the courtroom."

Campbell worked as a law clerk for Flynn and enjoyed carrying his briefcase and doing research for him. In the process he heard a lot of stories about him, such as this one: "The guy he got off for murder when he was guiltier than sin. The defendant flat-out shot his wife of 30 years with a service 45, and John got him off. In later years, I started thinking, how can you get somebody off when you know he's guilty?"

It was only later when he heard that the freed murderer had tried to kill his second wife, too, that Campbell realized the overpowering significance of the case and how wrong it is to free a guilty man.

Campbell is worried that people who knew Flynn will think he is writing a biography, but he just based the novel on the character. "I had incredible affection for him. But he was over the top. He was the wildest man I've ever known."

The novel is set in Phoenix in 1973, when a beautiful woman, accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter, walks into a house carrying a gun. Several shots are fired. Then the woman and her daughter leave the house. Inside, her husband, the girl's father, is dead.

The assumption made by the police and the media is that the woman killed her husband, and since the event propels the girl into a catatonic state, she can't testify. Although it appears on the surface to be an easy case, the father of the dead man hires famed lawyer Dan Morgan to defend his daughter-in-law.

Although the plot shows promise, Campbell's approach in the book is highly repetitive and twice as long as it should be, thus reducing the suspense factor to zero. The characters speak in almost constant obscenities between puffs on cigarettes and cigars and drunken bouts at a local bar.

It is virtually impossible to identify with Dan Morgan, who alternates between seeming very clever and very stupid and who has the personality of a jerk. Thick legal terminology often obscures the plot. And frequent unfavorable references to LDS Church members (such as a judge who is also "a Mormon bishop," and thus a religious fanatic) betray a thread of anti-Mormon bias, even though the story is not really about Mormons.

No wonder Campbell spent so many years trying to get his manuscript published. Doubleday encouraged him a few years ago and told him to cut it by 300 pages and come back with an agent. It took a very long time to get an agent, and when he did, he and the agent disagreed on the interpretation of the main character.

At a party attended by Betsy Burton, founder of The King's English, Campbell was discussing his problems in getting the book sold, and Burton volunteered to read it. She liked it and encouraged him to fire his agent. "Don't change a hair on the main character's head," Burton said, and she made contacts for him in New York.

Campbell replied, "Fire the agent?! I've been trying to get an agent for 13 years! How can I fire him?" But Burton's advice prevailed, and it led to a contract with HarperCollins.

The author plans to tour several Western cities to promote the book, and then he wants to write "another novel or two — or three or four."

If you go

What: Gordon Campbell, reading and book signing

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East

When: Tues. 7 p.m.

How much: free

Phone: 484-9100

Web: kingsenglish.booksense.com/

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com