Lawrence Friedman is a soft-spoken, congenial Stanford University law professor — and the author of the chronicles, along with more than 30 academic books, plus law-review articles and talks. He's 83, married and has two grown-up daughters.
He is by no means retired.
Between working on several long-term law-related writing projects at once — on major criminal trials, 19th-century English criminal law and privacy law, among others — he keeps office hours on campus and continues to teach American legal history and law and society.
But in 15- to 30-minute chunks (make that crumbs) of time, he works nearly daily on what he calls his hobby: writing mysteries.
"If I spend just a bit of time, but on a regular basis, it adds up. ... It isn't my day job. I have fun. It's not a source of tension or grief; it's a source of pleasure," Friedman said in his home.
After earning his bachelor's degree and two law degrees from the University of Chicago, Friedman briefly practiced law before entering academia. He came to Stanford as a full professor in 1968, later becoming the Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law (and, by courtesy, professor of political science and professor of history).
But all the time he was churning out those legal articles on contract law, human rights or privacy in the Internet era, he was having fun each day working on mysteries, honing his Frank May character.
He self-published a couple, but most just stayed in the drawer.
While chatting with the publisher of his "The Human Rights Culture," Quid Pro, he asked if the company ever published fiction. Alan Childress said yes, agreed to look over a few, and accepted as many as Friedman would turn in — albeit under two conditions: He would turn over the entire series to Quid Pro, and he would agree to use his real name.
So far, Quid Pro has published "Death of a One-Sided Man" (2013), "The Book Club Murder" (2012), "An Unnatural Death" (2012) and "Death of a Wannabe" (2011) under Friedman's name. Earlier he wrote and self-published "Dead in the Park" (2011) and "The Corpse in the Road" (2008) as Lawrence Mayer.
Friedman said he knows at least five other law professors who write mysteries, pointing to fellow Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein, author of several award-winning thrillers.
"Law professors write, are concerned with the law, so it's not so strange to write mysteries," he said.
Many of his books, which are written in the first person, turn on wills and trusts, a subject he has taught. He never does specific research for a book but acknowledges that he does enormous amounts of research for his academic books, some of which spills over.
Friedman, who has written about the history of mysteries, said his books "are not in the mainstream. ... Today, most successful writers, like Scott Turow, write about courtroom drama, with a lot of sex and violence. It's not me."
His Frank May is a lawyer but not a criminal lawyer. And he's not always the one who solves the mystery, but he certainly plays a pivotal role. His avuncular style seems to encourage people to come to him for advice; as each character drops by his office, he slowly builds his body of knowledge (clues) to finally figure out "who done it."
Friedman's ideas for new books can come while walking across campus or reading the newspaper. One book that's in a preliminary stage involves a man who "dies" and goes to heaven, where he encounters his dead mother, who tells him that she was murdered and she knows who did it. He awakens and sets to work in real life to check out her story. He was inspired by a newspaper story of a boy who similarly died and spoke with his grandfather before waking up very much alive.
Right now he's got four books in the hands of his publisher and another six old ones that he's thinking of reworking.
"My style has changed, and there are aspects of the plot that I want to change," he said.
Friedman said he wants his books to reflect real life; that's why he made May middle-aged, married with two kids. He was also careful to make his wife a sympathetic character, although more sensible than May.
"Subsidiary characters have affairs, divorces — Frank cannot," he added.
Friedman said he likes to write about what he knows — and that includes a lot of older characters. And he allows May to not be all-knowing, often having him say, "I don't know about that, I'll have to look it up."
His first-person mysteries are conversational in tone, with the dialogue ringing true. He said his role models are 19th-century writers Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen: "She's marvelous. Every sentence is perfect."
His next book, "Who Killed Maggie Swift?," will be released in a couple of months. All of his Quid Pro novels are available on Amazon.com.
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