Marcia Clark metes out justice in murder-mystery novel
It's telling that the title of Marcia Clark's murder-mystery debut is smaller than her name on the novel's cover. Clark is best known as the lead prosecutor in the media circus known as the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She's less recognized as an author, even though her 1998 book about the case, "Without a Doubt," spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Co-writing a book about one of the most notorious trials of the last century "didn't have much leeway. I had a story that had to be told, and the facts were there," Clark said.

Penning "Guilt by Association" (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown; pub date April 20; $25.99) was a lot easier and more "joyful" for the former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, who resigned in 1997 and now does court-appointed appellate work and appears as a special correspondent for "Entertainment Tonight."

She's been working on her debut novel since 2006.

Most bestselling authors would agree: One chart-topping book is no guarantee that the follow-up will do as well, especially when the genre is as radically different as it is with "Guilt by Association." The story follows fictional L.A. deputy D.A. Rachel Knight as she attempts to solve the murder of a colleague and the rape of a Pacific Palisades high school student. It's "a beach read," according to Clark.

Knight is a sassy, single, middle-aged brunet — an underpaid workaholic who believes in justice but disdains authority. Jaded and occasionally self indulgent, she's more than a little like Clark.

"There's a lot of me in there," admitted Clark, laughing between sips of iced tea at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, where her literary alter ego resides in the novel. "A lot of the bad stuff."

Now 57, Clark looks and acts far younger than her years. Gone is the wavy hairdo that was analyzed almost daily during the nine-month Simpson trial. In its place is a sleek brown bob. Instead of the stress and chain smoking are an easy smile and a warm demeanor that belies the bulldog nature she demonstrated in her attempts to convict Simpson in the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.

"Rachel's attitude is probably me. She's compulsive, obsessive, dedicated and driven. I think I'm that kind of hockey puck," Clark said, bursting into a laugh.

Clark never intended to incorporate so much of herself into her lead character, but after writing draft after draft of various books and showing them to friends and agents, she was confronted with the criticism that Rachel Knight, who works the same job as Clark did in the L.A. D.A.'s special trials unit, was an unreal "cream puff."

Showing the same dedication to writing as she demonstrated with trial work, Clark spent years experimenting. Decades of reading murder-mysteries was little preparation for the trial and error of fiction writing as she switched between the first- and third-person points of view and worked with various plots only to finally find the voice and story line for "Guilt by Association" — the first of a two-book deal with Little, Brown's Mulholland Books imprint. The follow-up, tentatively titled "Guilt by Degrees," will be out next spring.

"The writing process probably could have been easier than I made it," she said of writing the novel. "But you know, that's not my way. I've heard many authors say that they put in five to six hours a day and then knock off for the day. That didn't work for me. I needed to write nonstop until I got to the end. So I plunked myself down in front of the computer every single day and stayed there for as long as possible — sometimes 10 hours at a stretch, till I was cross-eyed and my shoulders were permanently wedged up against my ears. It's kind of a kamikaze approach to writing, but it helped to keep me inside the story and the characters."

The specific scenarios and characters in the book are entirely fictional, Clark says. Still, her personal legal experience lends the plots and personalities legitimacy and provides intriguing insights into the inner workings of the judicial system and the importance of personal relationships in getting things done.

There are unintentional echoes of the Simpson trial in "Guilt by Association." The murder in the book has sexual undertones, and there's an air of racism to the rape, which involves members of Latino and white supremacist gangs.

"There are certain umbrella truths that are ever present in trials not just in L.A. but across the country," Clark said. "Does race factor in? Sure. Gender bias? Absolutely. In my opinion, gender bias is a bigger problem than race."

Clark speaks from experience. She was the first woman to serve in the special trials unit in L.A.'s district attorney's office in the '90s. Contrary to public perception, Clark said she never experienced gender bias from Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran or Judge Lance Ito during the trial. But she added that women who are in the limelight, as she was, tend to get scrutinized in a way that men don't.

"Looks are always considered a fair topic for comment in a way they never are for men. On a behavioral level, I think women are often in a lose-lose position: Don't show emotion and you're too tough.... Show emotion and you're a wimpy 'girl,' not strong enough to handle the gig. Although I think we're making strides to get out of those binds, it's going to take a while before women are judged with a fair measuring stick."

In "Guilt by Association," Clark weaves two female colleagues into the story line — both of them supportive and humorous foils.

"To the extent that I have any political message in the book, it's that I'd like to see women love and support each other more," Clark said. "Women are unfairly depicted as competitive with one another in a way that's unnecessary and counterproductive. If there's one thing I consciously set out to do it's to say it doesn't have to be that way."

Clark said she's wanted to be a writer since she was a kid. She joked that one of her "signature moments" was growing up in Los Angeles in the second grade, when she had a poem published in the school paper.

Lawyering isn't typically known for eloquently written legal briefs, but Clark said part of the reason she became a lawyer was because she loved to write. She said she wrote all of her own motions until the middle of the Simpson trial, when there were simply too many to write them all herself.

Even 16 years after O.J. Simpson was acquitted, Clark said she still thinks about the case every day.

"I think about a lot of my old cases. Not just that one," Clark said. "There's so much sadness. Handling those kinds of cases where loved ones were murdered and you're dealing with the victims, their lives are forever changed no matter what you do. There's no amount of justice that can take away the hurt or pain they go through. You live it with them and carry some part of it with you. You never get away from that."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com