Finding Inspiration Inside a NYC Courthouse

Written by Kevin Egan

A Shattered Circle is my third thriller set in the New York County Courthouse in lower Manhattan. The iconic courthouse is a magnet not only for lawyers and litigants but also for tourists and movie production crews. In my two previous novels, the courthouse functioned as a character. Midnight focused on the self-contained world of a judge’s chambers. (The judge was dead, a minor fact his staff concealed for three days.) The Missing Piece featured the search for a stolen trial exhibit – a Roman urn worth $5 million – and took the reader to little-known corners of the complex building.

A Shattered Circle also explores the interior design of the courthouse, from the private assignations in a hidden room at the bottom of a back stairwell to the very public grand rotunda and its brilliant History of the Law mural arching 75 feet above the marble floor. But deep in its beating heart, A Shattered Circle is the story of a marriage.

The married couple are Bill and Barbara Lonergan. Bill is a judge and Barbara was his secretary before becoming his wife. Bill is a kind of courthouse raconteur – a story-teller, a jokester, the perfect hale-fellow-well-met. But after falling off a ladder, he has shown signs of dementia, and Barbara has drawn a protective circle around him to preserve his health, his reputation, and his career. Though the new Bill is more quiet and remote, he still shows flashes of his garrulous personality. Though he no longer confronts lawyers directly, he still issues rulings with the help, and sometimes the prodding, of his law clerk. The circle seems to be holding the outside world at bay, but as the Lonergans’ story opens, outside forces are massing. A disgruntled litigant files a judicial complaint, which could lead to a hearing that will expose Bill’s mental decline. A private detective investigating the murder of a lawyer in upstate New York badgers chambers for an audience with Bill. And a court officer, looking into a 25 year old courthouse murder as a favor to a friend, begins to ask Barbara uncomfortable questions.

I have spent most of my court career as a law clerk for two different judges. Working for a judge is a particular kind of job because you essentially meld your intellect, your legal philosophy, sometimes even your personality with those of the judge. The judge’s friends become your friends. The judge’s enemies become, well, not exactly your enemies but people you might rather avoid. And if the judge is married – and both of my judges had exceptionally solid marriages – you treat the spouse with the utmost respect and deference.

My two judges, and their spouses, became the models for the Lonergans. Not factual models; neither judge was a bird-watcher or had been, even briefly, a professional basketball player. But both spouses were exceedingly devoted and ferociously protective.

In Barbara, I needed to create a spouse who was even more devoted and more protective than her two real-life analogs. After Bill’s fall, she not only builds the protective circle but also manages every aspect of his life. It is exhausting work, even when doing something as mundane as taking a midday walk near the courthouse. As she reflects:

“She constantly worried about what he might do, what he might say, who they might encounter at an inconvenient moment. She constantly needed to think ahead, wargame the most routine activities to foresee any potential problem.”

Barbara believes that she can handle the private investigator simply by ignoring him. She believes she can prepare Bill for his disciplinary hearing by hiring a lawyer and arranging for cutting-edge therapy that will temporarily mask his dementia. To repel the inquisitive court officer, she drops her role as judge’s secretary and summons the high dudgeon of a judge’s wife. But ultimately, the protective circle shatters, and it shatters because of secrets the two spouses have kept from each other – secrets Bill cannot remember and secrets Barbara thought she had buried.

Find Kevin Egan on his website.

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