A novel project

It has absolutely nothing to do with the law or with Michigan’s legal profession, but I can’t resist reporting on someone who is living the dream.

That someone is Court of Appeals Judge William C. Whitbeck, who has accomplished what more than a few reporters (and lawyers, for that matter) dream of – he wrote a novel.

And he says it’s good.

The book, “To Account for Murder,” will be published in November by The Permanent Press in New York. The story is based, though Whitbeck admits loosely, on the true story of the 1945 murder of then-Sen. Warren Hooper. His murder was never solved, but it is believed that he was killed by members of the Purple Gang to keep him from testifying to a grand jury investigating government corruption.

“I’ve always thought I had a book in me,” said Whitbeck, who before going to law school went to journalism school in the 1960s and interned at the Chicago Tribune. “Then I stumbled across this fascinating tale.”

In 1990, he officially started putting words to paper, trying to tell the story about what would happen if a senator was killed just as he began talking to a grand jury. Whitbeck put the novel aside several times when his day job took up most of his time.

But a few summers ago, he decided it was time to finish the book. His wife completely took over managing their household affairs, and gave him the time at night and on weekends to explore the world of his protagonist Charles Cahill, a soldier wounded in battle at Pointe du Hoc, a cliff overlooking the beaches at Normandy, and who after his return to the states struggles with alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder.

The characters in his novel are fictional, mostly because Whitbeck said he didn’t want to be “trapped by what happened in real life, even though what really happened was fascinating. It’s a story about corruption in Lansing, and the prisons, and Republican politics.”

If there are any characters based on real people, he said one is similar to his own grandfather, who — Whitbeck paused before he finished his sentence, “Was a bootlegger. It’s pretty certain that he had been running hooch.”

“It’s a good yarn, a good story. On one level it’s about a loss. Charles Cahill lost his arm (in battle). He lost his father, and he’s about to lose the woman he loves,” Whitbeck said. “On another level, it’s about appearances, which can be deceiving. What looks honest may not be, and what looks terrible may be good.”
The book, Whitbeck said, went through six drafts, and yesterday as he was awaiting editor’s remarks, he said he fully expects it will undergo another substantial revision.

“That’s what I wasn’t really expecting,” he said. “When I finally finished the book I thought I was done. But I learned pretty quickly that you can’t just go out and find a publisher. First you need an agent.”

So Whitbeck fired off about 100 query letters to agents, and received five replies. He negotiated an agreement with one, who later told him that the mid-sized agency he works for receives 200 query letters per week.

Then, there’s the task of finding a publisher, which is no small task; Whitbeck said that he was told the Permanent Press only accepts submissions from five or six unpublished writers per year.

“Then, I have to sell the damn thing,” Whitbeck said. “Unless you’re a big author, when it comes to money for publicity or book tours, you’re on your own.”

Whitbeck has plans regarding his day job — at age 69 he is running for another term on the bench. But he will also market the first run of his book throughout Michigan. And then he’ll take the book tour into the rest of the Midwest, starting with Chicago, where he still has friends in the news world.

And somewhere in the mix, he admits, “I’ve got another book in the works, which I would describe as a legal thriller. I’m about 20,000 or 30,000 words into that. … I’m not sure where it’s going, but the bodies have started to pile up.”


2 thoughts on “A novel project

  1. This is a fascinating story based on a remarkable time in Michigan history. Coincidentally, I live in the notorious Frank McKay’s home in Grand Rapids. I’m hoping for an autographed copy of Judge Whitbeck’s book.

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