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In Death by Rodrigo, narrator Salvatore “Junne” Salerno Jr. has a name for those white-shoe, big-firm, partner-track corporate lawyers who crawl the streets of Washington, D.C.: “shit-don’t-smellers.”
Salerno would probably call his real-life creator, author Ron Liebman, a “shit-don’t-smeller,” too. Liebman’s a partner at Patton Boggs, a high-powered Foggy Bottom firm where he practices corporate defense litigation. In fact, the cordial 63-year-old Georgetown resident looks and sounds like the last person who’d be responsible for the prolific obscenities spouted by Salerno, a Camden, N.J., street-crime lawyer (and gay-bashing latent homosexual).
Death by Rodrigo, Liebman’s third book, is chock-full of pistol-whippings, “spurting cocks,” and “greaseball motherfucker slime-ass cunts.” Liebman himself, however, speaks with the practiced professionalism you’d expect from a seasoned corporate litigator.
“I don’t have the kind of practice that my two characters do—at all,” Liebman insists. “I may come across obscene characters, but they’re obscene in a different way.”
The book follows Salerno and partner Mickie Mezzonatti—defenders of “dopers, bikers, whores, even stone-cold killers”—as they find themselves increasingly tangled in the dirty laundry of a Salvadoran drug kingpin (the titular Rodrigo). Along the way, Salerno is just as likely to recount cross-examination strategy as he is to provide play-by-play commentary during a judge’s clandestine handjob from a hooker at a bar association dinner. (“His pecker’s now at full mast,” Salerno narrates, “flagpoling almost to the underside of the tabletop.”)
Liebman’s material is a long way from life at Patton Boggs. Indeed, since earning his J.D. from the University of Maryland in 1969, Liebman has stuck mostly to the “shit-don’t-smellers.” After serving as a law clerk to the chief judge of the United States District Court in Maryland, Liebman became a federal prosecutor in Maryland. In 1979, he moved to D.C.; in 1981, he joined Patton Boggs.
“I had a case in Camden in 2005. I saw some local lawyers, the sort of lawyers who handle street-crime cases, who weren’t as polished as the white-shoe lawyers in big firms,” Liebman says. “But they knocked me out, they were so good…I started to think, Man, this would be a great place to set a story. And then somewhere along the line, [Death by Rodrigo] came to me.”
It’s a story that, for the past two years, has had Liebman working overtime. “I’ve been at this for a while,” says Liebman—whose first novel, Grand Jury, was published in 1983. “I write very early in the morning. I don’t write during the day. Once I become a lawyer in the morning, I stay a lawyer until I stop.…I manage to divide the two worlds.”
That is, of course, until Liebman’s colleagues at Patton Boggs set their sights on Rodrigo. “They’re reading the book now,” Liebman says. “So we’ll have to wait and see.”