By Ana Veciana-Suarez
When Barbara Levenson told her high school counselor that she wanted to go to law school, he scoffed at her ambition. Women didn’t do that in the early 1950s.
When, as a mother of two boys, she decided to run for the school board in 1966, no woman had held public office in Columbus, Ohio. She went on to become the first female president of the Columbus Board of Education.
When she decided to return to college in 1975 after moving with her family to Miami, her mother said, “You’re going to ruin your marriage.” She didn’t. And when Levenson ran against an incumbent for a circuit court judgeship in 1992, and won, there were plenty of naysayers, too.
“There are always people who are going to tell you no,” says Levenson, who at 78 remains as quietly feisty as ever.
So when Levenson, a successful criminal defense lawyer and two-term circuit court judge, sat down at her computer to write mysteries, those who knew her raised neither questions nor objections. As her husband, Bob, puts it, “She’s not the kind of woman who takes no for an answer.”
Levenson’s “Neurotic November,” the fourth book in a series featuring criminal defense attorney Mary Magruder Katz, is out. She promises much of the same page-turning excitement of her previous mysteries, “Fatal February,” “Justice in June” and “Outrageous October.”
Like her first two novels, “Outrageous October” is the only one that takes place in High Pines, Vermont, “Neurotic November” is set in Miami, with Mary, the half-Jewish, half-Southern Baptist heroine, returning to her old stomping grounds to work on a dizzying variety of cases: a football player accused of raping an underage high school girl; a local bank involved in a money laundering scandal; a murder involving one of her boyfriend’s many cousins.
Levenson knew all along she wanted Mary to return to Miami. In fact, she set the series here because she was often confronted by others’ misinformation about the city where she has lived for almost 40 years. “I wanted people to know the real Miami,’ she says. “Miami is not South Beach. We do everything everybody else does but with better weather.”
In Mary Magruder Katz, Levenson created a lawyer who, she admits, is “a conglomerate of all the women lawyers I’ve met” in the course of her legal career. In an online review of “Fatal February” on the website mysteriousreviews.com, Levenson’s fictional criminal defense laywer is described as “the kind of lawyer a defendant wants, whether they’re guilty or not. She’s tough, sympathetic, knowledgeable and capable. She also knows how to balance work with pleasure.” Off the page, Levenson says, Mary is a little selfish.
Levenson rounds out her cast with very Miamian characters in oh-so-typical Miami situations. The boyfriend (and hot Latin lover) is Carlos Martin, a real estate developer who, in one of the books, eventually gets sued by dissatisfied investors in a condo he is building.
At one point or another, Mary represents a wife who is the prime suspect in Miami’s society murder of the year, a local judge under investigation on charges of corruption and a young Argentine being held as a terrorist.
“I try to have three or four cases going on at the same time for her,” Levenson says. “It’s like that in real life. Attorneys always have several things going on all at once, too.”
Levenson should know. After graduating from the University of Miami’s School of Law in 1981, she worked as a prosecutor under the legendary Janet Reno. Three years later, she started her own criminal defense firm.
“I loved trial work,” she says. “I loved being in court.”
But she found herself traveling often and toiling long hours. So when her husband suggested she would do well on the other side of the bench, she ran and won a seat in circuit court.
After retirement in 2002, she worked as a senior judge for about five years, filling in as needed. Not one to sit still, she then focused her attention on fiction writing. She attended a five-day workshop at the Center for Literature and Theater at Miami Dade College, took two college-level courses and went to Kenyon College in Ohio for two more weeks of instruction.
She returned inspired, producing first short stories and then working her way to longer narratives. She admits, “It was very scary to start something” at an age at which most people have surrendered their professional ambitions.
Not Levenson. She also immersed herself in the publishing world, joining various writers’ organizations and learning about book publicity and social media.
When the publisher of her first books didn’t deliver on promises, she bought back the rights, republished them in paperback and self-published her next two books.
Much of her life, both personal and public, influences her work. The books’ courtroom scenes are often the ones most lauded by bloggers and online reviewers.
Outrageous October, the book set in Vermont, was a result of the summers she spends with her husband in Quechee, a little town in that tiny state. She and Bob also used to breed German Shepherds, 11 of her dogs were champions in the show ring, and the fictional dog Shepherd Sam in the Mary Magruder Katz series is based on those pets. Her next goal: getting the books translated into Spanish.
“I’ve never had writer’s block,” she says. “I just write, and if something is bad, I tear it up. You can always start over again.”