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Legal thriller in a small town

by Amy Kingsley

Rowan County is not a particularly glitzy place. Downtown Salisbury has its share of old, storied buildings, flanked by relics from the Civil War and before. But you would never know the settlement’s rich history from the highway, where the town appears as little more than a concrete tangle. From I-40, Salisbury could be anywhere in America.

In John Hart’s debut novel, The King of Lies, members of Salisbury’s moneyed class invariably live in pillared mansions set high upon the hills. The poor toil in valley farms or, more likely, wind up in jail at the wrong end of a criminal investigation.

“So many legal thrillers have high stakes, big cities, glitzy locales,” Hart says. “And the plot hangs on convoluted plot twists.”

Jackson Workman Pickens, the book’s protagonist, is a small-town criminal defense lawyer laboring daily among those of low eminence, representing indigent defendants imprisoned for the basest actions.

“What I wanted to do was show small people in small towns doing bad things for very basic reasons,” Hart says.

Pickens, known to almost all of his family and friends as “Work,” gets snared in this legal net early on in the novel when his father’s body turns up near an abandoned shopping mall. As it turns out, Work is a more willing criminal suspect than lawyer.

Inducted into the bar by his overbearing father, Work hates his vocation. The reader quickly discovers that Work despises all the trappings of prosperity foisted upon him by the Pickens’ patriarch – himself a successful lawyer. These include, but are not limited to, a beautiful but cold wife, a rambling estate perched on a low rise and even his BMW sedan.

Work’s plight, in particular his dislike of lawyering, is at least partially autobiographical. Hart toiled in Salisbury courthouses for a while before he quit the law, took a job on Wall Street then left to write fulltime. Hart now makes his home in Greensboro with his wife and two children.

He describes King of Lies as a success 14 years in the making. The legal thriller rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list after its 2006 release, and Hart won comparisons to John Grisham and Scott Turow. A panel of Hart’s mystery writing peers bestowed the most recent honor: an Edgar Award nomination for best first book by an American author. The Edgars, named for mystery writer patron saint Edgar Allen Poe, honor outstanding work in the field of mystery writing and are handed out annually by the Mystery Writers of America.

Hart gave himself a year to write King of Lies, a book that came on the heels of two unpublished novels he wrote during and after college.

He completed the book just under the deadline in 11 months and two weeks. King of Lies was published last May.

The books has all the hallmarks of a writer familiar with the terrain. Hart was born in Durham and spent the better part of his childhood in Rowan County. He attended college at Davidson and has put down deep roots in the community.

As such, none of his characters speak in drawn Southern accents or engage in acts typically found in the pages of a Southern Gothic. Salisbury comes off as it does from the highway – as typical middle America.

Typical or no, our own historically significant burg tucked between Charlotte and Greensboro is now the setting for a best-selling novel printed as far away as Japan.

Hart is working on another novel, also set in Salisbury, set for fall release that will give the unglamorous North Carolina Piedmont another moment in the spotlight.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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