The difference between life and death.

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THE DEBATE HAS RAGED on for ages.

It rages still.

What is most important to a novel: the plot or the characters? Personally, I am convinced that the mark of a great book revolves around the strength, the personality, the flaws, the tribulations, and the distinctive attitudes of the characters, both major and minor.

Take Gone With the Wind. Nobody remembers the plot.It took place during the War Between the States.But war was not the plot. But no one will ever forget Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

I rest my case.

When I wrote Wicked Little Lies, I needed a country lawyer who would play a pivotal role in the story. Wise. Tough. Hard-nosed. And I remembered Payne Roye. I had watched him work. I had spent a week on a splintered courtroom bench while he quietly and dramatically placed a noose around the neck of a murder suspect in Graham, Texas, during the 1960s.

He was the man I wanted my country lawyer to be.

young-county-courthouse-image

Payne Roye, in reality, had no business prosecuting a murder trial.

He was a defense lawyer. Young. Tough. Hard-nosed. Cocky. A former Golden Gloves boxer.

He was, and no one would dispute it, the best damn defense lawyer in Young County, maybe in all of West Texas.

But on a sultry Saturday night, with the crops withering in the fields, three young punks, with nothing better to do than drink beer and steal a few dollars so they could drink some more beer, robbed a service station, kidnapped the owner, drove him out of town, forced him to walk back into a wheat field, ordered him to kneel down, and fired a a bullet into his head.

It was cold and calculating, quick and clean, unless you watched the blood soak into the blistered Young County earth.

They weren’t hard to find.

Not these punks.

They did not resist arrest.

And all of Graham was on edge. It was bad enough that a good man, a good friend, had died in a wheat field. But here’s what made matters worse.

Everybody in town knew that Payne Roye would be chosen by the court to defend the three young men.

And Payne Roye had never lost a case.

The good citizens of Graham spent most of the night, knocking on one door and then the next, collecting right at twenty-five hundred dollars and hiring Roye to serve as a special prosecuting attorney. He, they figured, would be the difference between a man living and a man dying.

The D.A. had grown old, didn’t quite have the drive he once did, and had no problem stepping aside and letting some new blood come in and go to war with three thugs, a store-bought defense lawyer, and twelve good men and women who didn’t have a shadow of a doubt and didn’t need anybody giving them one.

Not many murder trials made their way into Young County.

The old judge was rusty anyway when blood was on the court docket, and this case had the whole town just a single slip of the tongue away from forming a lynch mob.

Payne Roye shook the D.A.’s hand.

They struck a deal.

The D.A. sat down.

And Payne Roye took over.

He was a surgeon at work.

The court-appointed defense attorney never had a chance. Neither did his client, a smart-aleck punk named Buck Edwards. The attorney might as well have been spitting in the wind with the wind spitting back.

Roye kept referring to the kid as Buckshot.

“His name’s Buck,” the defense attorney kept saying.

“His mama called him Buckshot.”

“That’s not who he is.”

“He is what his mama says he is.”

Buckshot.

It was definitely not a good name for a murder suspect. Payne Roye spit out the word, and it sounded like the name had been shot from a .38 revolver, much like the last sound the service station heard before he fell face first into the raw dirt of a plowed wheat field.

I would never forget the closing arguments.

The summer sun had settled far beyond the mesquite thickets. Darkness was crawling across the land and down the streets of Graham. The heat was unmerciful inside the courtroom. There was no air-conditioning. Ceiling fans tried to beat back the heat and failed miserably. When Payne Roye paused, and he certainly knew when to pause, all anyone heard was the tortured whine of the fans overhead. Sweat glistened on his face.

The crowd packed inside was on the edge of those hard-backed, wooden seats. Some were fanning themselves with newspapers. Others were using funeral home fans left over from the last Baptist revival.

Payne Roye looked at the jury and methodically re-played every frightening moment of a frightening night. Hour by hour, minute by minute, step by step, breath by breath until the breathing stopped.

There was a curse, he said.

A prayer.

A gunshot.

And it was over.

Payne Roye wiped the sweat from his eyes and tried to straighten his suit. The sweat had it plastered against his shoulder blades. In a whispered voice, he ended his summation with these words: Buckshot Edwards with a heart of hate, sealed his fate, with a thirty-eight.

The finale might not have played in New York and probably not in Dallas. In Graham, he received a standing ovation, and the jury handed down the first death penalty in Young County in seventy-five years.

When I introduced my attorney in Wicked Little Lies, that’s the story I told. Payne Roye, with another name, another town, another courthouse, and another description lived again within its pages.

A reader would be able to realize exactly the kind of man he was.

And why not?

The attorney’s character had not been hastily ripped from my mind at the last minute and thrown carelessly and hastily onto the page.

He had lived before.

He was real.

And the reader knows it.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Guilty or innocence is seldom important in a trial. The best attorney wins. This time, justice was served by a good man.

    • And by the crafty people who hired him as prosecutor.

      I doubt the criminal, though guilty, got what we supposedly promise: an adequate defense.

      Having the best attorney win is a travesty.

      But we cannot know objective truth.

      What actually wins is the best STORY.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        You summed it up nicely, Alicia.

  • Darlene Jones

    In any story, in any setting, the characters have to be real or the story has no punch. As we write bits of ourselves or people we know invariably creep into the character we put on the page. We can’t separate ourselves and our experiences from our writing.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You’re right, Darlene. A little of us is always in the story, and often we don’t even realize it until it’s done and someone points it out.

  • Michael Vorhis

    This was a riveting account Caleb. Morally it seems to me the obligatory “trial” must have been quite adequately determined before the court session began, in the actions of that night and in the subsequent gathering of easily discernable facts. In that sense the murderer did get both an undeserved fairness and the promised hand of justice.

    Isn’t it amazing how some people can opt to take everything from another person, his family, his children, only because it may gain something virtually worthless for themselves? Beyond the weighing of consequence, there’s no weighing even of relative value–relative loss. To me that’s the very definition of sociopathic selfishness…and I know a fair few people who exhibit those same disconnects but who simply haven’t murdered anyone…in the corporal sense anyway…as yet.

    You paint quite a vivid picture of the people involved Caleb.

    – Michael Vorhis (suspense author)

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