Michigan history sparks novel by Judge Whitbeck


Michigan Court of Appeals Judge William C. Whitbeck autographs copies of his first novel,  To Account For Murder.

By Frank Weir
Legal News

Real-life “murder, sex, corruption and politics” provide the backdrop for Judge William C. Whitbeck’s first novel, To Account for Murder.

Whitbeck, who was a writer before he was a lawyer or judge, was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1997 and reelected to six-year terms in 1998,  2004, and this fall.

His current judicial term expires January 1, 2017.

He is a graduate of   Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Michigan Law School.

“Northwestern was then, and is now, horrendously expensive but I won a McCormick Scholarship which, among other things, meant I spent several summers working for the Chicago Tribune,” Whitbeck said.

“When I was in college at Northwestern, I was trained in straight reporting and expository writing but I dreamed of writing the great American novel. 

“Despite a long career as a lawyer and a judge, that dream has never really left me.  To Account for Murder is a genre novel—a legal thriller—but it allowed me to accomplish a least some small portion of that dream.”

Whitbeck has a keen interest in history which shines through in his Legal News column, “From the Judge’s Chambers” and which informed his choice of material for his first novel.

“Among other things, I think that history is cyclical.  Things that have happened in the past have a somewhat mystical way of happening again, perhaps in different sequence and form but often with the same or similar results.

“I also think that knowing something about history broadens one’s appreciation of a number of things.  If you know something of history’s tragedies, for example, then when tragedy strikes in your own life you understand it more deeply; if you know something of the large triumphs in history, then you can appreciate your own small triumphs more fully.”

Whitbeck stayed close to home in developing the novel, basing it on true events dating from mid-1940s Michigan politics; specifically an unsolved-to-this-day murder of a public figure.

“State Senator Warren G.  Hooper was a perfectly ordinary looking man with a long, gently rounded face, a high forehead, pursed lips, and eyes as bright and vacant as black buttons. 

“He had served without any particular distinction in the Michigan House of Representatives during World War Two and then won a state senate seat in 1944, probably because voters believed he was related to a well-known congressman.

“Hooper did have one interesting feature.  He was a crook. 

“But in wartime Michigan that did not set him apart from many of his colleagues in the Legislature.  A good number of them were also crooks.  So many, in fact, that a one-man grand jury, with Ingham Circuit Court Judge Leland Carr as the one-man grand juror and flamboyant trial lawyer Kim Sigler as the special prosecutor, was busily at work interrogating witnesses, issuing subpoenas, returning indictments, and generally threatening Lansing’s cozy culture of corruption,” Whitbeck said.

He added that Hooper “sang like the proverbial canary” in private to investigators and was scheduled to publicly testify against one Frank D. McKay to assert that McKay was the central figure in a long-running bribery scheme involving a number of state legislators.

 “McKay was a legend in Michigan politics,” Whitbeck said.  “A former state treasurer, he had grown rich on the public payroll and, although he had broken with Governor Harry Kelly, he was still a power in the state’s Republican Party.  

“He was known simply as the Boss.  And the Boss dealt very directly with his enemies.”

How directly?

“Hooper found this out the hard way. After leaving the Capitol on the bitterly cold afternoon of Thursday, January 11, 1945, he drove eastward toward his Albion-area home. 

“On a lonely stretch of M-99, his green Mercury was forced off the highway.  Then he was shot and killed, execution-style, and left sprawled in the passenger seat of his burning car.”
The killing ignited a “firestorm.”

“Suddenly, Leland Carr and Kim Sigler were big news and they used their power with a vengeance. 

“Although McKay almost certainly ordered Hooper’s death, they were unable to convict him. But they did send members of the infamous Purple Gang—the mob responsible for over 500 murders in Detroit alone before the Sicilians muscled them out—to prison for the conspiracy to kill Hooper. 

“Concurrently, the grand jury investigation mushroomed.  In total, there were 62 convictions, including a former lieutenant governor, 23 state legislators, and more than 30 other lobbyists, police, and court officials. 

“At one time, a third of the Legislature was under indictment. 

“And within two years, Carr was a Supreme Court Justice and Sigler was governor of Michigan,” Whitbeck noted.

It’s easy to see how this colorful historical record caught Whitbeck’s eye and one can’t help but be reminded of Robert Towne’s neo-noir screenplay classic, “Chinatown,” which also featured public corruption, thugs, and murder against a backdrop of true events in pre-war Los Angeles.

“These true events attracted me for three reasons.  First, the combination of corruption, politics, and murder was simply irresistible. 

“Because of its sheer drama, it was blazing headlines in Michigan in the early post-war years.  In fact, in 1945 Ken McCormick of The Detroit Free Press won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for reporting on the Hooper murder, the Carr grand jury, and bribery and corruption involving state lawmakers. 

“Second, the results—the indictments, the convictions, Carr’s ascent to the Supreme Court, Sigler’s election as governor—were spectacular.  And the fact that this all took place during a time of great political, economic, and social change in our country and our state made the affair even more attractive. 

“Third, the story behind the story—the what ifs that come immediately to mind—provided me with an opportunity to create a milieu in which, as protagonist/narrator says at the outset, everybody lies and things are rarely as they seem.” 

Whitbeck first got wind of the Hooper story by reading Three Bullets Sealed His Lips, a straight historical account by Bruce A. Rubenstein and Lawrence E. Ziewacz of the Hooper murder and its aftermath. 

“Along with Ken McCormick’s newspaper stories, this remains the most authoritative historical account of the Hooper affair. 

“But I emphasize that I set out to write a novel, not a historical account, and every character who has a speaking role in the book is entirely fictional.  For example, the special prosecutor for the one-man grand juror, Hubbell Street, is totally unlike Kim Sigler. 

“In fact, the person that I had in mind when I created the character was Lyndon Johnson: large, intimidating, ambitious, relentless, folksy at times but deadly serious at his core and totally without scruple in his methods.

“My characters, therefore, and the events that I have set out in To Account for Murder are light years away from the real characters and the real events. 

“Those events provided me with only a base upon which I constructed a fictional alternative universe, one in my objective was to weave a story about what might have been, not what was.”

Whitbeck differentiates the novel from those real-life events.

“On the surface, my novel is simply a story out of the past, about the killing of a Michigan state senator in 1945.  And by the middle of the first chapter, we know—or at least we think we know—who did it.  That is when Charlie Cahill, the narrator and the protagonist, says he is very familiar with the senator.  ‘After all,’ Cahill says, ‘I’d shot him.’

“But at another level, the book is about loss.  Cahill loses a great deal during the course of the book.  He loses his father, drowned in the Detroit River while smuggling whiskey in from Canada during Prohibition.  He loses his left arm below the elbow as a result of his wounds during the Normandy invasion.  He loses—or thinks he loses—the love of his life when she betrays him with the man who would be governor of Michigan. 

“And, bit by bit, he loses his belief in the great game of the law, a game that is fixed from the beginning.

“The book is also about the difference between appearance and reality.  It is about love and vengeance.  It is about truth and deception and the ever-changing shades of gray that fall between the two. 

“It is about allies who become enemies and enemies who may be friends.  Cahill learns that things are often not as they appear and while he comes to recognize that no one is pure in this life, he also learns to live it as best he can. 

“And with that knowledge comes a level of redemption that transforms him from a victim to a very modern sort of hero. 

“So, in the end, and for all its qualifications and ambiguity, the book is about loyalty and hope.” 

Although the ink is barely dry on To Account for Murder, Whitbeck already is hard at work on novel number two.

“I am about one third of the way through my second novel, with the working title of A Rendezvous with Death. 

“It is set in the present day in the Detroit area and opens with the suicide of a high-ranking Detroit police officer whose brother, a Supreme Court justice, has gone missing. 

“Along the way, there is a bomb in a courtroom that kills the wrong person, a muddled, incompetent bank robber who stumbles into a Mafia money-laundering operation, and an Internal Affairs policewoman, known as the Ice Queen, with a world-class attitude. 

“The protagonist—I can’t really call him a hero—is Jake Cornell and when he isn’t drinking martinis or trying to seduce the Ice Queen, he must deal with a client who has killed himself and a situation the parameters of which he comprehends only vaguely, but which is clearly very dangerous.”

Whitbeck notes that, “The second project is the offshoot of a class that I taught for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education on arguing to the bench. 

“I have an outline of over 100 pages that, with considerable additional effort, I could turn into a book aimed a lawyers who must argue to judges for a living.”

To Account for Murder is for sale online through Amazon and the like; through the publisher, “The Permanent Press,” or by order through your local bookstore.