You might say Kevin Davis was born to write about criminal justice: his grandfather scored an interview with John Dillinger for the Chicago Daily Times in 1934. Davis grew up in Chicago, worked the crime beat for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for ten years, and in 1996 published his first book, The Wrong Man, about a wrongful conviction. At that point, he realized he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Florida in a comfortable but limited job. “I missed Chicago, and I wanted to write books,” he says, but the idea for his new one, Defending the Damned (Atria), didn’t come right away.

Five years ago Davis started hanging out with the murder task force of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, a team of lawyers that handles only homicide cases. The members of this elite group are different from you and me. Veteran attorney Bob Strunck describes a day at the office: “This guy was having sex with his daughter and then he found out she was pregnant. He took her down to some building, chained her to a fence and beat her to death.”

It’s not easy for him and his colleagues to talk shop with outsiders. Civilians tend to be either repelled by the crimes involved or creepily interested in them. But the public defenders develop a tolerance for gruesomeness and focus instead on the courtroom contest. “To me, it’s a fight,” task force director Shelton Green tells Davis. “I’m not that concerned whether they did it or not.”

Defending the Damned sticks to the facts yet reads like a novel–and to at least one movie studio rep, one ripe for adaptation. The public defenders emerge not as the burned-out do-gooders of stereotype but as fierce competitors who “always fought to win, and . . . savored every minute of the battle.”

Davis appears next Saturday, June 9, as part of the Printers Row Book Fair, where he’ll be interviewed by the Tribune’s Eric Zorn.

Journalists tend to rely on official sources. Did you deliberately seek out these public defenders as somewhat unofficial sources?

I like to write stories about people in the shadows–people we don’t know much about.

Kind of the opposite of celebrity journalism?

Yes. I thought of public defenders as a group that’s really marginalized. Even as a beat reporter, I didn’t get to know any of them well. Most media coverage is weighted in favor of cops and prosecutors, because they control the message–and as reporters know, if you make a last-minute call on deadline to a defense attorney, chances are they haven’t met their client yet and have little to say.

In this case, it helped that I hung around there so much, and that I didn’t take out my notebook all the time. And I told them up front, “This is going to be raw. I’m not interested in stock answers to questions.” I think that showing genuine interest helps. We all want people to understand what we do.

I didn’t know what the story would be going in. Then I found a case–the killing of Chicago police officer Eric Lee–that set up a classic battle between good and evil. And the accused killer, Aloysius Oliver, and his public defender, Marijane Placek, the flamboyant and tough public defender who’s a central character in the book, were willing to cooperate with me. Once I focused on that story I could intersperse other chapters to tell side stories. Still, I have lots of three-ring binders and boxes full of notes that didn’t get in. I cut out a whole chapter about the case in which Oprah Winfrey was called for jury duty. A public defender was involved, but ultimately it just didn’t fit.

The book’s an emotional roller coaster, and you write about how the public defenders engage in gallows humor and wall out civilians from their work in order to cope with the kind of crimes they deal with daily. How did you deal with the situation, given that you weren’t one of them?

Well, I did start to speak their language, including the jokes. And I did start to build a wall, like the day I learned about that awful case of dismemberment.

A woman tried to cover up the killing of her 15-month-old daughter by dismembering the body and frying the pieces in batter.

I came home and struggled with how, or whether, to tell my wife that story. Eventually I did.

That’s a terrible story to hear once, let alone live with for months as part of your job. Yet Marijane could refer to it in-house as the “Kentucky fried baby” case. I was struck to find that what horrified her was something quite different. After she’d harshly cross-examined a witness in another case, the witness’s father, a drug dealer, approached her in the corridor. He wanted to hire her as his attorney in another case and she was deeply offended.

The people on the other side of the case are supposed to hate her. She was so absolute in her feeling. It’s part of the system. Her boundaries are not to be crossed.

You crossed a boundary she wouldn’t when you interviewed the victim’s family in the case of Eric Lee.

I was very fortunate that his family was willing to speak with me, knowing that my book was primarily about public defenders. I really felt for officer Lee’s widow.

She’d always opposed the death penalty and now was appalled to feel that she could pull the lever on her husband’s killer.

It was my good fortune that she shared her story with me. I was able to spend time on all sides. I got to see things public defenders don’t.

Many of these stories and characters do have a cinematic flavor. Any nibbles from the visual media?

I have heard from at least one major studio. And–this sounds so weird to say–I have an agent in Hollywood.

What’s your next project?

That question is the most terrifying part about being an author. There are lots of great stories out there, but it takes a lot to sustain a whole book. Often journalists will write a book and people say, “It could just as well have been a good long magazine story.” I wanted to transcend that. My friend Robert Kurson [author of Shadow Divers and the new Crashing Through] and I discussed this. He said he thought part of the difference was that a book has to have an arc.

A way in which it kind of comes back? I can see that. You start out with the cocktail-party question that people ask the public defenders: “How can you defend those people?” And they all have their standard rehearsed answers. Then near the end of the book, Marijane answers the question again. In a way it’s the same answer–about upholding the majesty of the law–but since we’ve been through so much with her it’s also much deeper.

Yes, she gave a much deeper answer at the end, including the king’s speech before the battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V–“We in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” She knows it all by heart and wells up with tears when she recites it.

Who do you think might play her in the movie?

Kathy Bates? Kathleen Turner? Actually I think it might be better as an ensemble TV series. It’d have to be on cable, of course.

Life with all the sweat and awkwardness and bad words left in?

Yes. This could be the Deadwood of legal dramas.