Arts & Culture

Pulp fiction writer’s inspiration comes from his day job: Criminal defense lawyer

Ryan McKaig, criminal defense attorney and crime novelist, at Slim's in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. McKaig leads a double life that combines his two occupations better than most.
Ryan McKaig, criminal defense attorney and crime novelist, at Slim's in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. McKaig leads a double life that combines his two occupations better than most. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Like a lot of working folks, Ryan McKaig of Raleigh has an artistic hobby to go with his professional career. He’s a criminal defense attorney by day (and sometimes by night, too, during busy stretches), and author whenever there’s time.

What’s unusual about McKaig, however, is how seamlessly those halves come together in his first published book, “Bull City Blues” (Sawtooth Valley Publishing). It’s a crime novel set in Durham, and McKaig tells the story through the eyes of his first-person protagonist John Egan – a defrocked-cop-turned-private-investigator.

“Bull City Blues” centers on the strangulation death of a rising young TV reporter. The victim’s boyfriend faces charges for her murder, and Egan’s investigation pulls him into a netherworld of greed, violence, political corruption, cops on the take and even a little sadomasochistic kink.

It’s a page-turning yarn, written in a matter-of-fact (and proudly politically incorrect) tone with plenty of real-world local details sprinkled in. A large part of the fun of “Bull City Blues” is trying to figure out the thinly veiled real-life inspirations behind various events and characters.

“When I was writing this book a year and a half ago, that was a time when Durham seemed like one of the most corrupt places on earth,” McKaig says. “... Durham’s always been unique with these extremes of wealth, poverty, higher education and vicious street violence all on top of each other. As the city has evolved, I think it’s struggled to reconcile that.”

His story

McKaig, 41, grew up in Raleigh and went to UNC-Chapel Hill. After graduation, working as a reporter took him to Colorado, Idaho and New York City – where he got off a subway not far from the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just in time to witness United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower.

Two years later, McKaig gave up journalism and came back to North Carolina to study at Campbell Law School and become a lawyer. After a stint clerking for the Court of Appeals, he went to work as a criminal defense and civil litigation lawyer. So when he writes now, it’s for pleasure.

“The fun thing about writing is it’s a total escape,” McKaig says. “Doing criminal law and being in that world, you do develop an exaggerated view of how prevalent crime is because you see it so often.”

To that end, McKaig’s John Egan protagonist isn’t exactly a hero, but he’s not quite an anti-hero, either. He takes a very pragmatic view of justice, right and wrong, and he’s not above cutting corners and even taking the law into his own hands to set things to right.

“I wanted Egan to be a guy with a moral compass, but he’s also willing to lie, cheat and even kill to make the right thing happen,” McKaig says. “He’s someone who all but declares, ‘I have no problem lying, even under oath.’ I like him even though he’s despicable in a lot of ways. ... Doing things like ... trolling Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. There’s a lot you can do with a character like that.”

What pays the bills

Just about every criminal defense lawyer has a lot of stories about what they see day after day. McKaig is no different, and his work provides a steady stream of anecdotes and inspiration for fiction-writing.

It’s serious work – one of McKaig’s current cases is a lawsuit against the Lillington Police Department (in Harnett County, a place with law-enforcement issues) for excessive force, over a police chase that resulted in the death of a car passenger. But it’s not without dark humor, too.

“Criminals can actually be funny because of how stupid they are,” McKaig says. “And most of them are really, really stupid. Bank robbers are the worst, most of them don’t even know what a dye pack is. One guy got caught robbing a bank because they found an exploded dye pack in his car. His story was that someone else stole his car and did it, but he had dye all over him. He’d worn a black mask, and there was a Dollar Store receipt for it in the car. The cops found the cashier who said, ‘My hobby is drawing doodles of people who come in here.’ And she had what looked just like a composite sketch of him.

“You see the same people doing the same things with the same results over and over,” McKaig concludes, “where the only good that comes out of it is the entertainment value of watching them fail.”

What feeds the soul

While “Bull City Blues” is McKaig’s first book to see the light of print, it’s not the first one he has written. It’s his fourth book, following novels about domestic terrorists and Depression-era gangsters – plus an ambitious and quirky literary novel called “The Counterfeit Girl” that McKaig based on disgraced journalist Elizabeth Albanese, who was caught essentially fabricating her entire life and career in Texas a decade ago.

“The Counterfeit Girl” will be McKaig’s next book. He chose “Bull City Blues” to publish first because it’s the most accessible book he’s written so far.

“It’s the first one I wrote with a mass audience in mind, anyway,” McKaig says. “The others I mostly wrote for myself, where this one seems like the easiest, most entertaining read for people. It’s also the first one where I worked with a professional editor.”

That editor was the late Marjorie Braman, who also worked with the great Elmore Leonard. With its snappy, almost screenplay-esque dialogue, “Bull City Blues” should appeal to fans of Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.

It’s a quick read, and it was also a quick write for the author. In contrast to his other books, which McKaig labored over for years, “Bull City Blues” came in a single six-week burst, followed by a lot of editing.

“Every book before, I’d work through chapter by chapter really polishing as I went along,” McKaig says. “This one was easier because it was a subject I knew well and could easily write. I kept it short and simple, and it just poured out.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Double Life

Double Life is an occasional series where we share the story of a local creative – artist, writer, maker – hidden in plain sight.

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