Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for January include: (1/5) Jennifer J. Chow, (1/12) Amy Pershing, (1/19) Heather Weidner, (1/26) Marilyn Levinson.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

An Interview with Keenan Powell by E. B. Davis

 Lots of folks out here can’t fight the system, can’t find lawyers. No one cares.
We’re just supposed to go away where no one sees us. Screw ‘em.
We refuse to hide. This is our home. And that’s why they want to get rid of us.
Keenan Powell, Deadly Solution (Kindle Loc. 1731)

Less than a year after drinking sidelined her career as a public defender in Anchorage, Alaska, Maeve Malloy is asked to defend an Aleut Indian accused of beating another homeless man to death. With no witnesses to the crime and a client who claims to have no knowledge of the night of the murder due to a blackout, the case is stacked against them.

As Maeve works to maintain her sobriety, she and her investigator Tom Sinclair search for answers in homeless camps, roadside bars, and biker gang hangouts. When they uncover more than a few people with motives all their own for wanting the victim dead, they are determined to prove their client's innocence before he is sentenced to a life behind bars for a crime he swears he didn't commit.

When Maeve and Tom discover there may be a link to an unusually high number of deaths among the homeless community, the search is on for a killer hunting among the most vulnerable members of society.

Deadly Solution, Keenan Powell’s first Maeve Malloy mystery and debut novel, keeps the reader engaged. Not long into the book, readers deduce the author’s profession. It’s a no brainer—Keenan is a lawyer. There’s too much detailed knowledge of the profession to guess otherwise. Her main character, Maeve Malloy, a lawyer, defends a client charged with murder.

Keenan presents the story in third-person multiple points of view. The story starts simply in the viewpoint of the client charged with the crime, bad enough because he doesn’t remember the night, but very soon, other characters present complications, which multiply and make Maeve’s job difficult. In addition to ferreting the relevant case factors, mainly the responsibility of her investigator Tom Sinclair, Maeve encounters resistance from the prosecutor’s office. She must wrangle with missing documentation in the discovery package, but for Tom and chance she wouldn’t have known about.

Flak from her past personal and career debacles plague her. She discovers too much discretionary authority and finds her own client fails to mention his past transgressions, reminding her of a previous case when her ignorance made her look foolish or dishonest. And the truth was neither.     

Keenan presents the investigation but she includes background affecting the case, things I didn’t know, like Alaskan population demographics/culture, state law, politics of law, courtroom protocol and détente. All of which provide a rich milieu transforming a solid mystery into a damn good mystery. 

Please welcome Keenan Powell to WWK.                                                                                E. B. Davis

Why is Alaska the land of “extreme people”? Extreme people thrive in Alaska because of the extreme light, dark and cold. Anchorage has 19.5 hours of sun on June 21 and 5.5 hours of sun on December 21. Temperatures vary from 70 degrees to 20 below. Many (perhaps more normal?) people come to Alaska find they need more stability in their environments and leave. When I came up in 1982, the locals didn’t bother to learn your name until you had been here three years. When you met them, instead of saying “What’s your name?” or “What do you do?”, they’d say “How long have you been here?” If you hadn’t survived two winters yet, the next thing they’d say was, “How long you think you’ll stay?”

You portray alcoholism as rampant at every level of society in Alaska. Why is alcohol such a dominant factor? There are a few reasons. Many people come to Alaska because they’ve burned their bridges everywhere else. Those people, by nature, have more troubled lives. In addition, the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings oil 800 miles from the North Slope (the northernmost land along the Arctic Ocean) to Prince William Sound, attracted work-hard-play-hard people. Men and women would spend weeks living in camps in the wild and then come back to Anchorage with fistfuls of money, much of which was spent on drugs and alcohol. A third factor is the destruction of the Native cultures and the outlawing of their way of life. Many villages have a 98% unemployment rate, and little to do except drink.

Every accused believed to his core that truth and justice went hand in hand.
They must have learned that in grade school. But that wasn’t how the
Justice system worked. It wasn’t about truth, it was about evidence.
It wasn’t about justice, it was about closing files.
(Kindle Loc. 636)

That’s harsh. But it’s true, isn’t it? It is true. If you ever get into trouble, that’s the first thing you learn. It’s one reason why young, bright-eyed criminal defense attorneys burn out.

Maeve Malloy has her own private practice, but she receives the murder case from her probationary lawyer. Why did Maeve leave the public defender’s office and get put on probation by the bar association? Maeve left the P.D.’s office because she had been relegated to a non-trial status after having departed for alcohol rehabilitation on short notice, leaving the office in a lurch. Her boss had to reassign cases and seek continuances to accommodate the changes, so he was concerned, he said, that she would crack up again under the extreme stress of trial work and leave him in another lurch. He was also anxious to get rid of her because they had an office romance which ended when he married another woman. At the same time, the bar association learned that she had taken leave on short notice and was concerned for her fitness, so it put her on probation.

Shelly Watson’s testimony is crucial to Maeve’s defense. But you bring Shelly’s story into the book far earlier than seems warranted. Why did you want to include her POV? I wanted to show hard-working people living from paycheck to paycheck are one unlucky break away from homelessness. The homeless crisis is not just about mentally ill, alcoholics and addicts; it’s also about the harsh realities of our economy.

Why does Maeve torture paperclips? At one level, it’s a nervous habit. At a deeper level, paperclips are symbolic of holding things together. Sometimes you want to put things together and keep them in a neat little pile. Sometimes you need to tear that pile apart.

Her client had been staying in a V. A. domiciliary, rehab, but he wasn’t allowed back there after binging. The murder victim, Joe, was a homeless friend, with whom he hung out. Maeve and Tom focus on the homeless population for witnesses and possible suspects. Another lawyer brings to her attention that if the Medical Examiner’s office suspects natural death, they have no legal requirement to perform an autopsy. This fact propelled the writing of this book. Why? A few years before I began writing this book, there were twelve homeless deaths during the summer, one right after another. This is unusual in Alaska because the homeless tend to succumb to hypothermia in the winter. If they make it through the winter, they can make it through the summer. A stream of letters to the editor were published declaring the belief that there was a serial killer, but the local police kept insisting that the deaths were natural causes. Then, the deaths stopped as mysteriously as they begun. A few years after those deaths, I went to a law seminar in which the presenters discussed a little-known law that allows the medical examiner to declare the cause of death without doing an autopsy, and that the medical examiner can dispose of the remains in seventy-two hours if not claimed.  A light went off in my head. If no autopsies were done, and the remains had been destroyed, who’s to say the medical examiner was right?

What’s a reindeer hotdog? A foot-long, fat, decadent, garlic and pepper infused mixture of pork, sometimes beef, and reindeer. They are sold at hot dog stands in downtown Anchorage in the summer and at the fairs. Reindeer herds are managed in western Alaska for commercial purposes and there is a reindeer farm in Palmer, a few miles outside of Anchorage.

The client admits that he and Joe drank and smoked weed, and yet the toxicology from the ME’s office report on Joe is negative. When Maeve decides to get an outside autopsy, she learns that the victim’s body was cremated, the evidence destroyed. The prosecutor’s office claims they can’t fund preserving the body for that long even though the “speedy” trial date must be no longer than 120 days from arrest. Is this legal? Why didn’t the judge reprimand the prosecutor’s or MEs office? Evidence gets “lost” all the time. It’s the defense attorney’s job to make sure the prosecutor is brought to task. In Deadly Solution, Maeve tries to get the case dismissed because of the lost remains, but the judge gives the prosecutor an “out”. It’s all about due process of law, whether the defense is provided enough evidence to meaningfully cross-examine the medical examiner and confront the charges against him. If Maeve’s expert can make do with samples, then it’s a “no harm, no foul” situation. If her expert said the samples weren’t enough, the judge would consider dismissing the case. Maeve’s expert says he can make do with the samples. Ultimately the prosecutor is sanctioned for a variety of his actions in this case. In real life, the judge could refer him to the bar association for unethical behavior and he might be suspended or disbarred.

Why are the mudflats by Cook Inlet a killing field? The mudflats are extremely dangerous. When the tide is in, they are hard and can be walked on. When the tide goes out, they go soft and people will sink in and get stuck. Then the tide comes in again, it traps the person in the sand and he is drowned in the incoming water. This photo (below) is courtesy of Linda Lyons. 

Why does the state bar association forbid lawyers from partnering with non-lawyers? The bar association is responsible for ensuring that a minimum standard of ethics is maintained in the profession. It has no control over non-lawyers, only lawyers. Thus, it is possible that if a lawyer partnered with a non-lawyer, the non-lawyer could do something unethical over which the bar association would have no authority. Moreover, the partnering of a lawyer and a non-lawyer may give the appearance that a non-lawyer has undue influence over the conduct of the law office and that appearance of impropriety is something over which the bar association is deeply concerned.

What was it about Maeve that Tom has so much faith in—enough that he quit working for the public defender’s office, giving up a steady paycheck and benefits, to work exclusively with her? Tom was impressed with Maeve’s dedication to justice and her pitbull-like refusal to let go. He was tired of budget-considerations limiting investigations at the P.D.s office and was willing to risk a less stable income in exchange for knowing that she, and he, would do the right thing for their clients.

She [Maeve] recited the Miranda rights to herself. You have the right
to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you.
Not just handy in the back of a patrol car, it worked socially, too.
(Kindle Loc. 1015)

Why does Maeve need to recite the Miranda rights to herself and often feels socially inept? In her late 20’s, Maeve gets sober and, after having drunk her problems away most of her life, she finds herself living a grown-up’s life with few acquired social skills. Her fallback is law.

What’s the “Permanent Fund,” and are you kidding? I kid you not. The Permanent Fund is the State of Alaska’s account accrued with oil royalties and investments from oil royalties. As of this writing, there is no income tax in Alaska and the state government is entirely supported with oil revenue. Annually, a portion of the investment income is divided between the state government and each resident of the state. Qualifying residents, including children, generally receive between $900 and $1300 in October of each year. And then there is a state-wide spending spree.

What is Maeve’s x-ray vision? When Maeve pieces clues together, she senses what is missing, what it should be, how it should fit, and where to find it.

Is Chester Creek Trail sort of Anchorage’s Central Park? We have quite a bit of parkland in Anchorage, thanks to those heady days when oil first gushed from the North Slope. Our “Central Park” would be Delaney Park Strip which runs between downtown Anchorage and South Addition, one of first residential neighborhoods built mostly of Sears kit homes. Once an airfield, Park Strip is now home to a rose garden, memorials and ball and soccer fields. There are also several small pocket parks in various neighborhoods with kids’ playgrounds and more ball fields. Chester Creek Trail is part of the 135-mile bike trail system through Anchorage. Some of it is on the street but where possible, it goes off street following creeks and one the westside, it skirts along Cook Inlet. On a good day, you can see Denali from the coastal bike trail.

The first time the prosecutor’s office offers a deal to Maeve’s client, he declines. The second time they offer a deal, she declines without presenting it to the client. She knows she’s crossed a line. Why did she do it and what is her response? She already knows Ollie won’t take any deal, so she felt comfortable rejecting it. The reason she did it without consulting him was she felt she was being manipulated, and she felt she had to show it wasn’t working. There may have been a touch of ego and temper involved, too.

What’s a cheechakos? A “cheechako” is a newcomer to Alaska. The term is said to have originated with the local Natives in Anchorage with a corruption of “Chicago”.

Maeve grabbed a cup of yesterday’s coffee, cold, and swung into position behind her desk.
Her first cup of the morning was always day-old. Good coffee was good cold.
(Kindle Loc. 2860)

Is Maeve sick, masochistic, and/or cheap? Good coffee is good cold! My mother used to respond as you did when I’d walk into the kitchen, find one cup of cold coffee left in the coffeemaker, and drink it. The truth is that Maeve and I are impatient; we can’t wait long enough to make hot coffee to get the jolt. I still come home from work every day and finish off the morning’s coffee cold.

During the trial, Maeve, eyeballs jurors and speculates as to which ones will favor her or the prosecution. Do attorneys play the juror game? You betchya! Larger firms will have a paralegal parked in the back of the courtroom watching the jurors and taking notes. Really big firms have jury selection experts who sit through the whole trial watching the jury and giving feedback to the attorney.

Much like the MEs office, when someone dies in the hospital, the treating physician signs off on the death without an autopsy. Most autopsies in this case would escalate costs unreasonably. Can an autopsy still be requested by the family? If the remains are preserved, a family could demand autopsy, but they may have to pay for it. I haven’t looked into it; it hasn’t come up.

After reading this book, it’s a wonder you still practice law. Are you a trial lawyer? Why ever for? I don’t practice criminal defense anymore. After ten or so years of that, my children asked me to spend more time with them. Now I’m representing injured workers in workers compensation cases and I love it. The trial days are much shorter because there is no jury and the rules of evidence are relaxed in administrative proceedings. It gives me time to write in the morning and read in the evening. I have no idea how trial attorneys write too. And I still get paid to fight. Best job in the world.

Do you have a contract for more Maeve Malloy mysteries? If so, what’s next for Maeve and Tom? Deadly Solution is the first of a three-book deal with Level Best Books. In the second book, Hemlock Needle, Maeve and Tom will investigate the disappearance of a young Yup’ik Eskimo woman who is a single mother and a chief financial officer of multi-million-dollar joint venture.

For dinner, given your choice would you like deer, bear, fish, or just a grilled cheese, please? Grilled cheese. Again, not a lot of patience for cooking.


Kait said...

Wow. What an impressive story. Can't wait to read it. Alaska is on my bucket list. Sounds like my kind of place.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kait! Hope you enjoy the book and come up sometimes. I get a big kick out of the tourists. I like to stop, talk to them, find out where they've gone and what they've seen and give them directions, most especially where to find the best coffee.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Hi, Keenan, looking forward to reading your book and learning about "your" Alaska.

Anonymous said...

What a great interview!

I loved the book, especially the courtroom scenes. I'd be a little afraid to have Maeve across the aisle.

Alaska is a "pipe dream" vacation for me. Maybe when the kids are gone...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Margaret. Alaska is a character of its own. Hope you enjoy it.

Thanks, Mary. I understand about the kids. Hope you make it up someday.

Sasscer Hill said...

Keenan, this was my favorite question/answer in your most readable blog post.
"Why does Maeve torture paperclips?
At one level, it’s a nervous habit. At a deeper level, paperclips are symbolic of holding things together. Sometimes you want to put things together and keep them in a neat little pile. Sometimes you need to tear that pile apart."
I love this kind of deeply layered metaphor. Good job!

Warren Bull said...

Great description of the legal system.

Gloria Alden said...

Jeebab, I put it on my TBO list and can't wait to read it.

KM Rockwood said...

I love your realistic take on the criminal justice system. So many people end up pleading guilty or no contest to crimes they didn't commit because they are (rightfully) afraid to face a trial and a much more serious sentence.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Great interview! Reading the book right now -- it's terrific and kept me up way past my bedtime last night because I didn't want to stop. :)

Wow, the mudflats are haunting.

Anonymous said...

Sasscer: Thanks! I had a consultation with Donald Maas a couple of years ago and he suggested something symbolic. Paperclips are my life. I still feel rich when I handle binder clips. I used to envy those things so much when I was a poor baby lawyer.

Warren: Thanks.

Gloria: I hope you enjoy it!

KM: So true. Especially if the unfortunate defendant has an attorney who is adverse to fighting. I've seen innocent people get railroaded.

Cynthia: Thanks so much and I'm glad you're enjoying it. Yes, the mudflats are deadly and haunting. The photo of them on my website is courtesy of the artist Linda Lyons.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous interview!

jrlindermuth said...

Alaska is like another country for many Americans. Enjoyed the read. Interesting info about you, the place and your characters.