Saturday, January 20, 2024

Q&A with James H. Lewis




James H. Lewis is the author of the new novel Novak's Verdict, the third in his series featuring police chief Karol Novak. A former journalist, Lewis lives in Pittsburgh.


Q: This is your third novel featuring your character Chief Karol Novak—has he surprised you in any way?


A: From the outset, I saw Novak as the opposite of the archetypical cop depicted in most police procedurals. He’s married and is a devoted family man. He doesn’t drink or party. And while he’s seen the darkest side of humanity, he’s not cynical toward the community at large—just the church and his political supervisors.


I made Barbara, Novak’s wife, a strong character. She has steadied him and helped solve one case. It's been fun seeing their relationship develop and, in this book, come together to make a life decision.


Q: What inspired the plot of Novak’s Verdict?


A: When Karol Novak took over as chief of Boyleston borough, he’d already retired from the Pittsburgh force. He signed on to salvage a scandal-plagued police department in his own community, a mitzvah. He told community leaders that once he’d done so, he would bow out.


In doing so, I created a “box canyon.” Novak would never continue in this role. In Novak’s Verdict, I bring the themes I developed in the first two books to a close, but not the characters, as we will see.


As to the specific plot, I spent six years as president of the board of a homeowners association and now serve on the board of another. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to kill one of the HOA’s perennial antagonists? A neighbor told me of one such individual, and I did him in. 

Q: In one of our previous interviews, you said, “All my novels deal with underlying themes. They're ultimately about something larger than the plot.” What would you say are some of the key themes in this new novel?


A: The largest theme in this series is doing justice. Novak doesn’t just want to make arrests; he wants to do right. He’ll buck the establishment when necessary to see justice done, even if it means putting his reputation and career on the line.


An important subtheme of this book is one I set up in Novak’s Mission, but didn’t fully appreciate then. It’s the tendency of bureaucracies and weak leaders to pass problems on rather than dealing with them. Both Karol and Barbara Novak confront these challenges in Novak’s Verdict and deal with them together.


Q: How did you conduct your research for this book?


A: I conducted much of the research for this series by talking with law enforcement professionals. Police officers are happy to discuss their profession and its challenges as long as the person who questions them is genuinely interested and not pursuing an agenda.


I get a lot of help from former police officers via Quora, a site on the internet where you can post specific questions and get expert answers. (Quora was essential in researching my World War II novel, The Quadrant Conspiracy, when I couldn't travel to Canada because of COVID.)


I’m a voracious reader, following active criminal cases, particularly those with a political dimension. As a former journalist, I covered courts for years, so I know what happens during hearings. Read, ask questions, and listen. To the extent I have a secret, that’s it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I thought you’d never ask. One of the most popular characters in the Novak series was the young patrol officer he promoted to detective, Lydia Barnwell. She solves more cases in this series than Novak does, though always under his guidance. It’s time Lydia got her own series, and I’m working on the first book now. I also have plans for Novak’s deputy chief, Calvin Mayfield.


And don’t count Novak out. Just because he’s retired doesn’t mean he’s stopped caring about justice. Perhaps it’s time he sat at the other table in the courtroom.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve become fascinated with life in Germany following the war—with German civilians who may or not have supported Hitler but who find their lives uprooted; Jewish survivors who return to ruined communities and confront those they thought were their friends and neighbors; and millions of displaced persons fleeing the Soviet advance whose shtetl upbringings clash with the urbane backgrounds of those raised in Germany’s large cities.


There are stories here. I hope I have time to tell some of them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with James H. Lewis.

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