Anthony Franze’s debut novel opens with a dramatic scene at the Supreme Court: Six justices have just been gunned down by a crazed assassin. If that doesn’t grab your attention, nothing will. Franze is an experienced appellate lawyer with Arnold & Porter and has helped author Supreme Court briefs, so he knows all about the mysterious workings of the high court—knowledge that he’s now put to a more creative use. The Last Justice (published by Sterling & Ross on February 7) focuses on the attempts by US solicitor general Jefferson McKenna, the federal government’s advocate before the high court, to get to the bottom of the mass killing. One of the twists: McKenna himself is a suspect. John Grisham (whose Pelican Brief also featured a couple of justices kicking the bucket) would be proud. Franze, 41, who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and three kids, talks here about how he came up with the idea and the long road that led to the finished product.
If you were pitching this to a Hollywood producer, what would you say?
It’s a riveting tale of murder, mayhem, and corruption set in the fascinating world of DC law and politics.
Can you describe how you thought up the dramatic opening scene?
I wanted to start the book with something unthinkable and just grab the reader. I was doing some research on the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices. The idea came to me: replacing just one justice is such a polarizing event, what would happen if the country was faced with a situation where a single president had the opportunity to appoint six justices? It just flowed from there.
What about the idea of doing a book focusing on the Supreme Court?
Part of that is obviously my work. I’ve had the honor to work on some cases in the Supreme Court. The idea that the public doesn’t know much about it and it’s such a great and fascinating institution—I view that as a positive. It allows me to take readers into a really interesting and fascinating world. Of course, you have to take liberties with a larger-than-life, unthinkable plot, because it’s a legal thriller, but I also wanted to make sure of the court’s history and procedures.
Aside from relying on your professional background, what kind of research did you do?
I did a lot of research. I learned a lot writing this book. I did what I do on a case. I threw myself into books, articles, newspaper stories about the court and the solicitor general’s office, about procedures I didn’t know about. I also interviewed people, including former White House employees, people who work on the Hill, former law clerks.
How did you decide to make the US solicitor general the main character?
To my knowledge, this is probably the first novel to have the solicitor general as the main character, and that attracted me. The solicitor general [position] is one of the great lawyering jobs in the country. One of the principal jobs is to represent the US in the Supreme Court. And again, it’s this institution that has this long, great history filled with phenomenal lawyers, but very few people, particularly outside Washington, have even heard of the office. It was this opportunity to allow readers to explore an insular, fascinating world.
How long did it take to write?
It took a number of years. Principally I wrote on and off. Most of the initial drafts were written between 11 PM and 3 AM, or on an airplane or train or at an airport. It took a long time to get a first draft. I finished probably two or so years ago. I started the book with the beginning and the end. The rest of it came as I was writing.
Had you always wanted to write fiction?
I always dabbled in fiction as a kid. I got sidetracked in high school and college when I had a different creative focus: I played guitar in a rock band. I didn’t really pick fiction back up until my first child was born. I was up at weird hours, and I have memories of him bundled in my lap and me pecking away at the computer. It kind of took off from there. It was a great creative outlet.
How has the feedback been from other lawyers?
I have been really pleased with everything that lawyers, non-lawyers, and other thriller writers have had to say about the book.
Have any of the justices read it yet?
I have no way of knowing. They have a lot of serious reading to do on the important matters of the term.