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“If you read my books, you’d probably think I’m a psycho,” says David Ellis, whose latest book, The Last Alibi, is out this month. “I’m soft-spoken. I don’t look creepy. But I write about horrible things.”

People thinking you’re psycho is an occupational hazard if you, like Ellis, are a writer of legal thrillers. The Last Alibi is the fourth in a series about Jason Kolarich (“Kola like the drink, rich like wealthy”), an attorney in an unnamed city that bears an uncanny resemblance to Chicago who has a knack for investigating murders and getting himself entangled in high-level conspiracies. (Also for getting his girlfriends killed; Kolarich is not the world’s greatest dating prospect.) In this latest installment, Kolarich starts off tracking a serial killer and finds himself on trial for murder.

But it might be an advantage if you, like Ellis, are a practicing lawyer (he was the house prosecutor during Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment trial) and are running for appellate court judge next spring.

“Being a lawyer means that elected officials don’t piss you off,” he jokes.

(Mild spoilers for The Last Alibi after the jump. Nothing beyond the first third, though.)

Part of what makes The Last Alibi so, well, thrilling is that almost every character is lying, including Kolarich, one of the book’s two narrators. (The other is his best friend and legal partner Shauna Tasker.) The truth trickles out slowly, usually after the fact, which makes you, the reader, question everything that’s happened before.

“The unreliable narrator is my favorite narrator,” Ellis says. “Jason isn’t intentionally keeping stuff from the reader. He’s keeping stuff from himself, too.”

  • davidellis.com
  • David Ellis

In this case, Jason, the logical investigator, almost deliberately fails to add up a large number of factors—a knee injury plus bad dreams and a dry mouth and itchy hands plus an uncharacteristically foggy brain and lack of interest in work plus a strange devotion to a tin of Altoids (to the point that he leaves the bed of a beautiful woman in the middle of the night and takes a cab across the city to get back home)—and conclude that he’s become addicted to OxyContin, which his doctor had prescribed during his knee surgery.

“It’s scary writing about about something like that [addiction],” says Ellis. “Especially if you don’t know what it’s like. There’s no one-size-fits-all description of an addict. Some people will say, ‘I’ve never experienced that,’ while others will say, ‘That could’ve been me.’ Some are honest, some delude themselves, some rationalize, some don’t. There are all different kinds of addicts.

“With Jason,” he continues, “I wanted to show it slowly taking over, but not to tell the reader immediately about it. It clouds his judgment and makes him vulnerable to falling for the wrong person.”

Ellis usually constructs his books like a legal case. “A lawyer knows what he wants to say in a closing argument,” he explains, “and then spends the whole case leading up to it.” The story, then, is the process of gathering and presenting evidence, sometimes planting clues or traps or deliberate misdirection. “I play with time and point of view with the ending in mind. I work backward. That’s how a litigator works.”

Unlike a trial lawyer, though, a writer enjoys complete control. There’s no unexpected evidence or witnesses to screw things up.

Ellis tries to stay as faithful to regular legal proceedings as possible. He sometimes takes dramatic license by editing out the boring procedural parts, but he says that many lawyers have read his courtroom scenes and most have liked them a lot.

The Last Alibi isn’t the only Ellis book out this month. The other is Mistress, a collaboration with James Patterson. He just finished up another collaboration with Patterson, their third, and is about to start on a new book of his own. It will not feature Kolarich. “I want to give him a rest,” Ellis says. After the events of The Last Alibi, which include six months in jail and rehab, a reader would tend to agree that yes, Kolarich has definitely earned at least six months on a nice, quiet beach somewhere.

Ellis, however, continues to practice law during the day. He’s started to campaign for appellate judge. He also has a wife and three children. He writes late at night. “I don’t sleep,” he says. “I always put the law first. Writing, too.

“Ten years ago,” he says, “I was talking with my friends at the law firm about our dream jobs. I’ve already got my dream job, writing books. But my other dream was to be a judge. Every day I’d hit my knees with gratitude.”

David Ellis will be reading from The Last Alibi on Thurs. 8/22 at 7:30 PM at Anderson’s Bookshop (5112 Main, Downer’s Grove).

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.