In Patrick Hyde’s Washington, D.C., when heads roll, they really roll.
That’s what happens in the attorney and author’s first novel, "The Only Pure Thing," when a prominent businessman is found decapitated and a homeless man wearing his expensive loafers is arrested for the murder.
It’s up to defense attorney Stuart Clay to find out the truth in a case that involves exploring the heights and the depths of the nation’s capital, from the corridors of power and organized crime to the camps of the dispossessed.
"Washington, D.C., is a unique place," commented Hyde, speaking to students at Capital University Feb. 15. "It has the best attorneys. It is the seat of government. And there is a huge underclass, a whole community living under a bridge."
At the crossroads of these cultures sits the criminal justice system, of which Hyde has intimate knowledge, having served as a defense attorney who handled 1,300 cases over a 12-year period.
In his novel, the D.C. courthouse, which he calls "The Calcutta airport of the court system," becomes a character, "the McDonald’s of the criminal justice system," churning out 30,000 cases a year.
The lock-up, where defendants await court appearances, can hold up to 200 people at a time, and is vividly described in the opening of the novel.
"It’s a zoo," Hyde observed.
But amid this chaos, he sees glimmers of hope in a young black mayor and a D.C. renaissance for the city that was once the murder capital of America.
That is the paradox of the life of a criminal defense attorney, to see the worst but believe in the best.
Being a perpetual outsider is also part of the beat.
Hyde was born in Appalachia before his family moved to Hilliard, where he was known as "the hillbilly kid from Kentucky."
When they moved to Cambridge, Mass., when he was 16, he was labeled "the farm kid from Ohio."
"I have perpetually been from somewhere else," something Hyde has in common with his protagonist, Stuart Clay.
This makes him equally at home among the upper echelons of society, in the court rooms and the mean streets of D.C., the author said.
Along with his outsider status, Hyde learned early on how rough the power game could be.
His father was a labor leader and a civil rights activist, whose associates were often threatened and sometimes murdered.
His grandfather was a coal miner from Harlan County, Ky., scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the history of the labor movement.
"I have always been around violence," said Hyde, who returned to Kentucky early in his career to defend miners against the powerful owners.
He worked on the mob-related pension fund case in Las Vegas, chronicled in Nicholas Pileggi’s book and Martin Scorsese’s film "Casino."
During one court date, Hyde found himself in an elevator with a man who reminded him of "an insurance salesman from Indiana."
When the doors opened and the press pushed toward them, Hyde realized the man was gangster Anthony Spilotro, portrayed by Joe Pesci in the movie and remembered for squeezing a rival’s head in a vice until his eyeballs popped out.
Spilotro was later beaten and buried alive by his mob rivals.
Such experiences did not prepare him for an easy legal job, Hyde said, and he opted for the defense attorney’s position.
Here he learned that the line between winning and losing a case can be almost non-existent.
One client, the young owner of a moving business, was arrested for having a sawed-off shotgun in his truck. Hyde got him off with a promise not to carry firearms. The husband and father was later murdered, leaving his attorney to wonder if the man would have been better off armed.
Another client, a young prostitute, was quickly freed but later found strangled with a garden hose.
"I’ve had so many clients murdered I stopped thinking about it," commented Hyde, who has practiced labor law since 2001.
One client thought he knew Hyde from another life.
That episode returns in the novel, with the accused Cleveland Barnes believing he knows Stuart Clay from the nation’s first race riot in the 1820s, which took place between poor whites against free blacks in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.
Hyde argued that we cannot escape our past. "We have ghosts coming back to haunt us. There is a moral fracture that has to be addressed."
He has been exploring part of our history with his 11-year-old daughter, and together they are publishing "Kidnapped at Bunker Hill," which takes place in 1774 and involves the daughter of John Adams, the most prominent defense attorney of his time.
Hyde wrote his first, still-unpublished novel 30 years ago, and re-wrote "The Only Pure Thing" 13 times "to get the ring of truth."
His next novel will be "Scorpio Rising."