Mystery author Joyce T. Strand, much like her fictional character, Jillian Hillcrest, served as head of corporate communications at several biotech and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Unlike Jillian, however, she did not encounter murder. Rather, she focused on publicizing her companies and their products. She is the author of the Jillian Hillcrest mysteries ON MESSAGE, OPEN MEETINGS, and FAIR DISCLOSURE and the Brynn Bancroft mystery HILLTOP SUNSET. Strand received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. She currently lives in Southern California with her two cats, a collection of cow statuary and art, and her muse, the roadrunner.
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A Mystery with a Hero-Judge
Joyce T. Strand
“A hero is a man who does what he can.”-Romain Rolland, French writer, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1915
It all started several years ago when I was having lunch with a friend. Knowing I was an author, my friend told me he had just printed copies for his family of his grandfather’s 1941 memoir. They had discovered it in an attic, unpublished. His grandfather had written it at the recommendation of his law partner who was also an author, Erle Stanley Gardner. Maybe I knew him?
Of course, mystery aficionado that I am, I certainly knew the creator of Perry Mason. So that partnership alone intrigued me. My friend generously sent me a copy of the memoir. (For those of you who might be interested: Louis C. Drapeau, Senior; Autobiography of a Country Lawyer; 1941, available at the Museum of Ventura County/Library, 100 E. Main St., Ventura CA 93001).
I learned why Gardner suggested that my friend’s grandfather should write his story. His autobiography is compelling. Rejected by both his biological father and his stepfather, as a teen-ager he managed to find odd jobs as a cowboy, muleskinner, Borax 20 mule team driver, and dockhand. Eventually he met and worked for a Senator, earned a law degree from Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., settled in Ventura, California, a small coastal town north of Los Angeles, practiced law with law partner Erle Stanley Gardner, and became a Superior Court Judge by the late 1930s.
Certainly the life of this distinguished judge offered material for a novel. I didn’t need to re-tell his autobiography—he did that eloquently himself. Since I write mysteries, I determined to create a fictional judge who would solve an imaginary murder in 1939 Ventura, California, and I would base my made-up judge on the real Judge, my friend’s grandfather.
I poured through the Autobiography to uncover personal traits, beliefs, emotions, ethics, and mores to assign to my own Judge Grover Roswell Akers to create a three-dimensional character. I read through issues of a local daily newspaper of 1939 to fit the story and my characters into the events of the time, and researched the legal issues and cases to assure my fictional accounts were in tune with what was happening at the end of the 1930s. Although I made up the murder-robbery, which is the core case in the book, I constructed it to be consistent with other cases of the time.
The more I wrote about my judge and how he struggled to offer justice inside and outside his courtroom, the more I realized that his actions were those of a hero. Oh, not the kind of hero who swoops down from the sky like Superman to rescue the damsel in distress, but the kind who does whatever he can in his daily life to assure that the right things happen, despite the obstacles.
And the reason for my fictional judge acting like a hero stemmed from the actions of the actual judge on whom he was based.
As a lawyer, the real judge frequently defended the under-privileged without compensation and spoke of how Mexican-Americans were mistreated. He delved into the causes of and possible solutions for juvenile crime and backed the consideration of prevention and/or rehabilitation. He cautioned us against community condemnation aroused by bigotry or ignorance. He supported the local boys club as a way to reinforce right doing. He worked to convince lawmakers to match punishment to severity of crimes. He cared for juvenile criminals and followed what happened to them. Did he have faults? Surely he did. But this man quietly spent his life dedicated to improving the legal system to lead to justice.
The Judge’s Story is fiction, written as an entertaining mystery. But the Judge’s ethics and commitment to justice evolved from the actions and beliefs of the real-life Judge Drapeau. My Judge also doesn’t hesitate to do what he believes is right. He pursues solutions to help juvenile criminals and enlists the aid of his friends to do so.
I did not start out to write the story of a hero, but that’s what happened because a real hero-judge inspired my character.
About the Book:
A Superior Court Judge with a passion for social justice as well as the law strives to discover the truth behind the mystery of a robbery-murder in a small California town in 1939.
When the Judge hears testimony against a 14-year-old teenager, he realizes that the boy participated in a robbery-murder. However, the accused did not actually pull the trigger. But unless the boy identifies his partner, the Judge must sentence him as a murderer, which would result in prolonged jail time. The Judge’s investigator, along with the precocious 16-year-old girl who identified the boy as one of the thieves, explore different approaches to uncover the murderer. In the backdrop of escalating war in Europe, the financial scarcities of the Great Depression, and the Judge’s caseload, their attempts to find justice for the accused boy and unmask the killer lure the Judge and his friends into sordid criminal activities.
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2nd Prize: $50 Amazon Gift Card and ebook or paperback copy of The Judge’s Story
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