The fight for the underdog isn’t confined to a courtroom for Jackson attorney Richard Schwartz. The scrappy battle unfolds across the pages of his books, too.
His new thriller “Pearl River Mansion” is a fast-paced, occasionally over-the-top tale of big wealth, bigger family dysfunction, death, coverup, some ravenous alligators and the unlikely heroes who can find justice somewhere in that mix.
This is the second in his Underdog Detective Series, which debuted in 2015 with the book “Two Dead and Counting ….”
“When I was 6 years old, I wrote down everything I wanted in life,” Schwartz, 64, says in an interview. “One was to be an attorney who had a law firm with several lawyers in it. One was to be involved with politics. The other was to be a writer. The other one was to have a house on a lake with four children, and on weekends to be a cartoonist. So, I’ve had goals in my life.”
Though it seems he never reaches the pinnacle of each goal, he has at least touched on them all, he says.
A Jackson native and resident, Schwartz followed a Bachelor of Arts from Millsaps College with his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981. He served as assistant city prosecutor for Jackson for a decade and city prosecutor for Ridgeland for two years. He now practices law at Richard Schwartz & Associates, one of the largest plaintiffs’ law firms in the state.
Goal-setting is a topic Schwartz likes to share about as widely as his unshakeable slogan. “I go to schools and speak to them about goal-setting all the time,” he says. The attorney describes the day a woman tapped him on the shoulder with a heartfelt thanks as “one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me in my life, besides my children (four of them, all daughters).”
When he came to her class to speak, the woman had told him she wanted to be a doctor. Schwartz helped her set up the goals to get there, and “I’m a doctor today,” she told him. “I felt 12 feet tall,” he says. “It was wonderful!”
“You can’t accomplish anything unless you have a goal,” he adds. “Without a goal, it’s just a wish. And, without a plan, it’s nothing but bedlam.
“Am I finished? No. But I’m glad I got two books out of it.” A third, now in the works, is probably another year away, he says.
‘Probably the Biggest Fiction That Ever Existed’
In “Pearl River Mansion,” handsome Tyler Chandler has refused his mother’s wealth and the strings attached, after his hasty had-to marriage (and unfortunate one, in her mind) and the arrival of twins. Four years later, the ring hasn’t cured his roving eye, his kids are either adored (son) or ignored (daughter) and his mother, Joan, is making another play with the puppet strings. A sudden tragedy plunges the family into chaos, where bad behavior thrives, master manipulation takes hold, and some folks’ better natures seem doomed to come up short.
When a child goes missing, and clues come the way of private investigator Jack Kendall and his smart, sexy assistant Stacy Young, they are on the case, and in the thick of the story.
Schwartz calls his next book “probably the biggest fiction that ever existed.”
“We have a Mississippi resident who’s become president of the United States,” he explains, letting that hang in the air, indulging a chuckle or two. He’s still digging through the details for “Operation Commander in Chief,” but Jack Kendall is called to investigate what happened, and why, “which will be the biggest mystery of all.”
For his novels, Schwartz starts with the story and populates it kind of like a casting director might. He scrolls through photos of celebrities and regular people online for inspiration to flesh out his characters, then imagines how they’d act. “If it were a movie, who would be starring in it?” he says, “and I put them in my mind. What would they be doing?”
He looked to actor Russell Crowe to jump-start his profile for the rumpled and righteous detective Jack Kendall.
“As I’m writing, I’m envisioning a movie,” he grins with an air-quotes gesture, “hopefully, one day.”
“I think when you write a book, you have to visualize everything in three dimensions,” he continues. “You have to actually see it happening in your mind, as opposed to happening on the paper.” Sometimes even he’s surprised by the turns the action takes.
“There Are a Lot of Bad People in this World’
Schwartz is proudest of his fully developed characters. “I love my characters in my books. … Even the nasty ones, because they’re real,” he says. “When you write a book about individuals, you want to get them as accurate to the real world as possible. So, you can’t have all sunny smiles. The reality is, there are a lot of bad people in this world,” a well as surprise heroes.
That’s the case in “Pearl River Mansion,” where an unexpected champion emerges. “Everyone has the ability to be a hero, even in the most dire situations,” he says. And with a storyline rife with family dysfunction, the sanest and most able person isn’t always an adult. “Sometimes you’re surprised by what a person has the ability to do, and not do.”
It’s a lesson, too, in the perils of arrogance, greed and underestimating those around you.
There remain goals ahead for Schwartz. He aims to delve more seriously into painting and making cartoon characters. “I’m a doodler,” he says. The lawyer also got about four more books he wants to finish, he says.
One, an outlier from his fiction series, will be called “The Happiness Myth.” It will be a logical study of happiness—how to attain it, goal-setting and more—that’s similar to the talks he gives at schools statewide, which he did frequently before the pandemic.
“I always enjoy talking to kids,” he says. “… It’s amazing to me how smart they are, so much smarter nowadays than I was at that age.”
‘They’re the Ones I Want to Fight For’
Schwartz recalls a talk to a senior class on First Amendment rights some years back at a city school where entrance required a trip through a metal detector and a bag check. He asked if anyone had a friend who was murdered. “Everybody raised their hand,” he says. He dug deeper, “and they weren’t the same friends.”
He talked to them about the First Amendment, and whether they believed music and video-game violence were problems, contributing to or causing violence in the world today.
“Their answers were fantastic. Their responses were there, they were sharp,” he says. They reached “the conclusion that I think most of us logically believe: It’s economics.”
The young people were bright. “The problem was, they don’t get the opportunity that they should get,” he says. “These are kids that could do some wonderful things in life, given the opportunity. They’re the underdogs. They’re the ones I want to fight for.”
Schwartz’s writing occasionally calls on his legal experience. “Two Dead and Counting …” involved a lawyer, as well as “not difficult” twists and turns about the law, he says. The matter of custody is a thread in “Pearl River Mansion.”
“There were some legal questions that had to be answered in the book. Not in-depth … because most readers are pretty bored with the law,” he says, laughing..
“If they had to read a book about law, I think they’d be asleep in three minutes. So, my goal is to keep them awake.”
Some of Jack Kendall’s traits align with his own, but that was not intentional. “The reality is, his search is for what is right versus what is wrong. And, I think that’s what I do in my business,” Schwartz says. “I fight for what’s right, against what’s wrong.
“In my legal practice I always fight for the underdog,” he continues. “I’m fighting against big insurance companies and lots of lawyers that are in big corporate offices. So, I’m fighting for the individual. I’m not fighting for the company, I’m not fighting for big dollars or big business, I’m fighting for one person who’s standing against everything that could possibly hurt them, in their situation, and I’m their buffer.
“I’m leading them through the legal minefield, so they’d won’t step on a mine. So, my job is to make certain that the underdog wins. And, I think that’s why it’s reflected in my books. I firmly believe in that.”