Saturday, February 28, 2004

The biggest-selling author you've never heard of
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

He's one of the top-selling novelists in the country. He's had eight New York Times best-sellers, and People magazine calls him a "master" at his craft. But unless you're a reader of crime fiction and legal thrillers, you've probably never heard of John Lescroart -- even though his novels are set in San Francisco.

So goes the life of the crime writer. Unless one's name is John Grisham or Scott Turow, it's an orphan's existence with no respect. This is what burns Lescroart (pronounced "less-KWAH"), a prolific writer whose 15th novel, "The Second Chair," was published last month.

"It's a big issue," Lescroart, 56, says in his spacious office in downtown Davis. "There's this idea that, if you write a story that makes the reader want to turn the page, you're not serious."

Lescroart's books -- he's published 10 in the last 12 years, including "The 13th Juror," "The Oath" and "The First Law" -- are in print in 17 languages in 75 countries. He's sold 10 million books worldwide, 8 million in the United States. And yet he's never been reviewed in the New York Times.

"I'm very sensitive about it," says Lescroart, a gregarious man with a big voice and graying beard. "I'm dealing with serious issues" -- battered women, mercy killing, flaws in the justice system -- "and I think I'm dealing with them in a careful way that's also fun to read. And when I read some of the more acclaimed literary writers, I don't get it. I just go, 'There's no story here.' "

Can't say that about Lescroart. His books are thick with plot and rich with detail -- the product of extensive research and longstanding friendships in the San Francisco Hall of Justice. His best buddy since high school, Al Giannini, worked 30 years in the San Francisco District Attorney's office and acts as Lescroart's collaborator and safety net, checking each book for legal accuracy.

Lescroart knows the city, having lived here four times in his teens, 20s and 30s. He went to the University of San Francisco for a year, graduated from UC Berkeley, tended bar at the Little Shamrock on Lincoln Way, and used to play local clubs as rock musician Johnny Capo. "I like to think of myself as a chronicler of (San Francisco). Even though I don't live here, I really feel like I'm part of the city." Recently, he and his wife bought an apartment on Russian Hill.

Ever since "Dead Irish" in 1989, all his novels have centered on two characters: Dismas Hardy, a former SFPD cop, a cynic and currently managing partner of a newly reorganized law firm; and Abe Glitsky, ex-homicide lieutenant, half-Jewish and half-African American, currently Deputy Chief of Investigations for SFPD.

A new character, Amy Wu, Hardy's ambitious, emotionally troubled associate, was introduced in the last book, "The First Law." She takes a prominent role in "The Second Chair," defending the 17-year-old stepson of a wealthy Pacific Heights businessman on a high-profile double-murder charge.

A "stickler for research," Lescroart says the best way to glean material is meeting people on a social level. "I used to rent a limo for the day because I tended to have wet lunches with my lawyer friends and research friends. I'd meet a bunch of people at Sam's for lunch and often sit around for two, three hours -- just schmoozing and drinking and having a blast. I want to keep them loose so they tell me secrets. I'm up-front about what I'm going to do with it."

Lescroart is frustrated, maybe bitter, at the stepchild status of crime writers, but he knows he has little room for complaint, given the odds for success. "I failed my whole early life as a writer," he says. In 1989, he was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Lisa Sawyer, and their children, now 16 and 15. He had a menial job as a word processor, typing legal briefs at a law firm.

Everything changed that year, when he contracted spinal meningitis while body surfing in contaminated water at Seal Beach. Doctors said he would die, but after 11 days he'd recovered. Revived, he made the decision with his wife to move to Davis, a town they knew because Lisa had gone to the University of California there.

At first, they lived in a tiny tract house, and Lescroart, a full-time dad, concentrated his writing into four hours each day. In 1993, he says, "My wife and I made less than $20,000." The following year, "The 13th Juror" became an international best-seller and everything changed.

Having waited so long, says Lescroart, the reversal in fortune feels "phenomenal." Determined to stay in the marketplace, he keeps a strict schedule that amazes his writer buddies: out of bed by 6:30, gym by 7:30, office from 10 to 5. He says he writes 10 pages a day, even when he's dry: "Writing is discipline, basically. If you wait until you're inspired, you're dead."

Lescroart even organizes each year into a work season. Brainstorming and research occupy each summer and the grunt work -- the actual writing -- lasts from September through the first of May when, according to his three- book contract with Dutton, he delivers a new Dismas Hardy/Max Glitsky novel.

"From now until May I'm a lunatic," he says. "In a sense it almost gets harder every book because you don't want to repeat yourself. And I'm sensitive to the words I use: I don't like to repeat the same rhythms."

When the writing flows, Lescroart says he's in the "trance" of the book. When he panics or hits a snag, he'll throw darts, take a nap on his leather sofa or pick up his guitar. An accomplished musician, he's written 500 songs and had two CDs, "Date Night" and "As the Crow Flies," come out last year on a small label.

The work regimen is paying off, but Lescroart complains, only partly in jest, that he'd sell even more books were it not for his problematic last name, a "bastardization" of French.

"It's the worst name in publishing," he moans. "The worst mistake in my career was not taking my mother's name after my first couple books. I'd be John Gregory and I'd be selling, no kidding, 10 times as many books."

That sounds ridiculous, but he insists it's true. "When people like my books they don't know how to tell anybody else. They say, 'I just read this book by this guy, John somebody, Le-something.' And the person goes, 'Oh, John Le Carre?' and they say, 'Oh yeah, probably.' "

E-mail Edward Guthmann at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

The biggest-selling author you've never heard of

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