Ex-Insider Turns Pen to Thrillers

In 1983, U.S. Federal Prosecutor William Pease was about to begin a major corruption trial. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's first wife, Mary Treadwell, was accused of scheming to defraud the U.S. government of millions of dollars.

Eventually, she would be found guilty. But first Pease would have to call dozens of witnesses, produce hours of wire-tapped conversations, and sift through boxes and boxes of paper evidence. FBI agents, U.S. Postal Service agents and various lawyers were in his office screaming at each other about how to proceed, and Pease thought to himself, "I'm out of here." He left the office and took a long walk along the Washington Mall. He wondered what would happen if he never went back.

He did go back. But that vision of a man who chucked it all stayed with him: It became the epilogue to his first novel, a best-selling thriller called "Playing the Dozens" (1990), and it provided the impetus for Pease to quit the law five years later and become a full-time writer. His third novel, "The Monkey's Fist," has just been published. He gave a reading from it Saturday night at Moscow's Shakespeare & Co. bookstore.

Pease describes "The Monkey's Fist" as a post-Cold War novel. It involves a renegade U.S. intelligence unit, ex-KGB officers turned Mafiosi and a regular guy who ends up in the middle.

"Any time you see a governmental agency try to justify its existence, it's an invitation for trouble," the 15-year veteran of the U.S. Attorney's office told some 20 people listening in the small basement store. Pease then read a short excerpt from the book, where one of his characters, a U.S. Marine operating a secret spy network, has just learned some of his people have turned against him.

Pease's editor at Viking and agent were initially disturbed by the idea for the book. They told Pease the Soviet Union was dead and spies were old hat. Pease listened to them, and said he wasted a year writing a really awful book, which he eventually abandoned. Then, when he finished "The Monkey's Fist," they praised him for his foresight: The Russian Mob, they told him, was now the "in" thing.

Pease, 53, has lived in Moscow for nearly a year after moving here with his wife, Laura Brank, a corporate lawyer with Chadbourne & Parke. He is at work on a fourth novel, which may be set in Moscow and which involves one of his favorite topics: the cravenness of lawyers.

"The law has become a word game, rather than meaning anything," he said. "There's no doubt that the most powerful people in the legal system are the prosecutors because they can take someone's life and turn it upside down at the stroke of a pen and ruin that person's reputation forever. And when they make a mistake, it's like, 'Oh, well.' They think the more scalps they collect, the faster they'll rise in the profession. I got tired of being the accuser."

The idea that Americans blindly trust in the fairness of the legal system fascinates Pease and is a running theme in all three of his books.

"I think Americans have a great deal of faith in the legal system, which doesn't deserve that faith. I have an interest in people's assumptions [about the system] versus the reality."

Between sips of red Georgian wine in the hot bookstore, Pease pondered the difference between American and Russian attitudes toward their governments. "It's the opposite with Russians," he said. "They have little faith in the system. I think there's an element in Russia that tries to avoid laws and the system at all costs."

But Pease's disillusionment resonated with a few of the Americans at the reading. "I work with the federal government," said George Tahu, an aerospace consultant. "And the things he said about perception and reality being two different things -- oh yes!" Tahu said he isn't much of a mystery or thriller fan, but he bought the book for $23.95 and lined up to get Pease to sign it.