Musician Reed Arvin hits new note with legal thrillersAlthough there's action aplenty in The Last Goodbye, the real thrill in this thriller is tuning into the caustic and nimble mind of protagonist Jack Hammond. Ejected from his high-dollar Atlanta law firm over an affair with a client, Hammond now supports himself (and a gorgeous secretary who reads Pottery Barn catalogs) by representing impoverished defendants in criminal court. "The words that enable me to pay three dollars more than minimum wage to the beautiful Miss McClendon," Hammond reflects, "are these: If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you.' "When one of his clients dies under peculiar circumstances, Hammond steps in to find out why. His snooping leads him into the arcane world of clinical drug testing and pairs him romantically with an alluring young opera singer who has some disturbing secrets of her own.
Speaking to BookPage from his home in Nashville, Arvin admits that he's rather taken by this new character he's created. "I'm pretty sure that the next book [after the one now in progress] will be a Jack Hammond book," he says. "I love the fact that he has this sort of wry insight into life. Even when all hell is breaking loose, he sees the humor in it. That's really attractive to me. I want that in my books. I'm not going to write dour, heavy, brooding stories."The Last Goodbye is Arvin's second mystery with a lawyer as hero. "Both my parents were lawyers," he notes. "My mom was a judge. I like to say that I studied law at the Les and Kay Arvin Dinner Table School of Law. It was just in the air. However, I'm not particularly attracted to law as a profession, and I don't write procedurals. Having a lawyer as a protagonist is great because it's a way to enter human drama. A lawyer enters a life when things are going haywire, so that's a great starting point to tell a story. But I'm not particularly attracted to legal minutiae."A native of Kansas, Arvin has spent most of his life as a musician and record producer. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees both in piano from the University of North Texas and the University of Miami. "Miami is so multicultural," he says. "I got involved in some tremendous Latin bands, bands that were playing Caribbean music, salsa bands, reggae bands. I got a tremendous education in life in different cultures, one that I could have never had without being in the music business. Then I came to Nashville."Arvin arrived in Nashville "a good 20 years ago," he recalls, and soon took a job playing keyboard in Amy Grant's band. He toured and recorded with the pop/gospel diva for four years. After that, Grant's advisors tapped him to produce records for contemporary Christian music artists. "But all during that time," he says, "I kind of had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write. I loved books, I loved great writing and I always wondered, what if . . . ?" The Wind In The Wheat, Arvin's debut novel, came out in 1996 and found him in familiar territory. It was about a gifted young singer who gets caught up in the Christian music industry. Alas, it attracted little notice. Then, in 2001, Scribner published his first thriller, The Will. "I feel like, in a lot of ways," he says, "that The Will was the beginning of my real writing career. That's when I became mainstream, signed with a real agent and got a great publisher." Instead of Kansas, which was a major setting for his first two novels, Arvin opted to locate The Last Goodbye in Atlanta. "It's really the center of the new, affluent black culture," he explains. "It's ground zero. It has more in common with the United Nations than it does magnolias." (Although Hammond is white, his love interest and some of his foes are black.) Arvin handles race matter-of-factly, bowing neither to sentimentality nor political correctness. He reached this calm perspective, he says, through his work as a musician. "Music is similar to athletics in that it is really performance-based. If you can carry the freight, nobody cares where you came from. I spent my whole life working with Latins, blacks, whites, Asians. It didn't matter. It was all performance-oriented: Can you play? So I don't have a lot of politically correct baggage."In plotting how The Last Goodbye murders would be done, Arvin dipped into real life and then anchored his findings with serious research. "I had cancer," he says, "so I had a lot of personal experience with powerful drugs that can heal you but also leave their mark on you. My own story ends well. But I had an uncle who had a much more serious and lethal kind of cancer. He basically made it a two-year mission to try to stay alive on clinical trials. So I watched from a distance the sort of mixed blessing these trials can have. That got me interested in a clinical trial as a place to set a thriller." To be certain he was scientifically on target, Arvin enlisted an expert on gene-based synthetic drug research and persuaded him to vet every page.
Arvin's next book is set in Nashville and has a prosecutor as its main character. Despite his love of performing and producing, he vows that he's totally committed to writing. "Around about the time The Will came out," he says, "a lot of things happened to me: I got divorced, I got cancer, I changed careers, my dad had a heart attack. It was unbelievable. It's like the five stresses that you're supposed to get in a lifetime, I got in 90 days. That's when I made some real choices about what I was going to do with the rest of my life and where I was going to head. I knew this was my second act." Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.