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Law school alum to discuss best-selling book


January 10, 2008

Gordon Campbell would be the first to tip the dealer for the cards life has dealt him.

The self-effacing Campbell, who attributes much of his good fortune to luck, has an impressive list of people with whom he’s crossed paths over the years. They include Willard H. Pedrick, the founding dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, legendary Phoenix attorneys John P. Frank and John J. Flynn, prominent book editor Carolyn Marino, and Mona, Campbell’s 95-year-old mother.

But Campbell, a 1972 alumnus of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, would never have written a New York Times best-selling novel that’s been highly praised by big-time crime novelists James Patterson and Tony Hillerman, if not for Mrs. Petrie.

Campbell met Mrs. Petrie nearly 50 years ago when he wandered into the Mesa Public Library and noticed a book with a dashing matador on the dust jacket. Mrs. Petrie, a librarian, helped Campbell, then a sophomore at Mesa High, obtain a library card and check out the book “The Death of Manolete” by Barnaby Conrad.

“I can still recite, or nearly so, the first sentence of that book, `On the 28th of August in 1947, in a small town in Spain called Linares, a multi-millionaire and a bull killed each other and plunged an entire nation into a deep mourning’,” says Campbell from his law office in Salt Lake City. “When you’re a 15-year-old kid, that makes a big impression.”

When he returned the book the following week, Mrs. Petrie had another novel picked out for him, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. Campbell devoured it, too, in a week and brought it back to Mrs. Petrie.

“I wanted to talk about how simply putting black ink on white paper could transport a boy from Mesa, Arizona, to Paris and make him feel like he was in the same café with these world-weary characters,” he says. “And at that moment, I went a little screwy.”

It was a good screwy, though, in that it lit a fire under the tall, plain-spoken man to someday put his own ink to paper. Campbell’s first book, a legal thriller set in Arizona and titled, “Missing Witness,” was published this fall by William Morrow, an imprint on HarperCollins, and another one is on the way.

Campbell will be in Phoenix in early February to address several audiences about his law-school days and literary success, including a program that will be held at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

“Inside the Lawyers Practice,” hosted by Professor Michael Berch, will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Feb. 6, in the Great Hall in Armstrong Hall. The event, patterned after Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton, is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a book signing.

“Missing Witness,” a book with “unforgettable characters, twisty plot and strong sense of place,” according to Hillerman, isn’t a Campbell autobiography, its author insists. But there are parallels between the characters, especially young lawyer/narrator Doug McKenzie, and his courtroom experiences, and Campbell’s own.

Campbell first became interested in law as a senior at Mesa High, where he took a commercial law course. Once out of high school, Campbell attended ASU for two years, then transferred to Brigham Young University, and after graduating, served in the U.S. Navy for about three years.

He was accepted at and planned to enroll in Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, but on a trip to Phoenix, he dropped by ASU’s brand new law school, to which he’d applied, but not heard back from. After a three-hour meeting with Dean Pedrick, Campbell’s mind was changed.

“The school was so desperate for people who had high scores on the LSAT because it was so new, and Pedrick knew how to beat you into committing to the school,” says Campbell.

Pedrick dangled the carrot of experienced faculty and brilliant young professors, Berch and Jonathan Rose, and guaranteed Campbell a post on the Law Review, which he edited during his last year of law school.

“It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” he says. “Hell, I would have never written this novel. And everything Pedrick said was true.”

Campbell took courses in procedure and trial practice from Berch, who noticed something special in him and urged him to become a trial lawyer. Campbell carried that confidence booster into many trials over the years.

“I’d get real scared because people would come up and tell me how bad they were going to beat me. I remembered what Berch told me, and that kind of saw me through the scary times,” says Campbell.

Pedrick brought in a star-studded line-up of lawyers to speak to the new law students, including Earl Carroll, now a U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Arizona, lawyer/writer Louis Nizer, and John Frank who, with John Flynn, took the Miranda case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One night, while gathered around a table at the Blue Goat, a Scottsdale bar, Campbell’s peers began telling stories about Flynn, a hot-shot lawyer whom every trial attorney was clamoring to see in action. Shortly after, Campbell noticed a length of paper hanging from a bulletin board to the floor in the law school. Flynn had advertised a student research position, and more than 100 students had signed up in hopes of being interviewed.

“I knew I’d never get the job,” he recalls. “But I wanted to meet him, and I thought if I had any hair, I’d drive my Austin Healy down to Phoenix to his office and tell him I could do the job, that he didn’t need to interview anybody. I got the job.”

After working for several months with Flynn, Campbell finished law school and graduated in 1972. He spent a year clerking for a judge in San Francisco, then was brought back to Phoenix by Frank to join his firm, Lewis & Roca. During Campbell’s three years there, he honed his lawyering skills by working with Frank and Flynn, who had an office downstairs and access to the Lewis & Roca library.

“John P. Frank and John J. Flynn were potent enough to give me something to write about,” Campbell said.

The first draft of his book, begun in 1979, was more than disappointing, Campbell says, and the second version, as told by an innocent, idealistic young attorney, wasn’t finished for nearly 15 years. Campbell sent his 800-page manuscript unsolicited to Doubleday, which told him to cut 300 pages and get an agent.

Eventually, Betsy Burton, owner of The King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City where Campbell often shopped, sent the manuscript to Carolyn Marino at William Morrow in New York City. The book deal was made in 2006, “Missing Witness” arrived in bookstores in September and just weeks later, it made the best seller hardcover fiction list at The New York Times.

“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think anyone would ever read it,” said Campbell, who recently completed an East Coast book tour. Now, Campbell is being pressed by his publisher to finish a second book.

At 65, Campbell, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, still enjoys practicing law and serves as of counsel to the firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer in Salt Lake City. He has no plans to quit his day job.

“This book is just the frosting on the cake.”