Nov. 24 2010 12:00 AM

William C. Whitbeck’s debut novel is ready for its day in court

In the course of his career, Judge William C. Whitbeck has taken on many roles, from his work as an attorney in private practice to political endeavors (including a stint assisting Gov. George Romney) to his long-running position on the Michigan Fourth District Court of Appeals. Along the way, Whitbeck has encountered many challenges.

Now he has taken on yet another position — that of a first-time novelist.

Whitbeck, who was re-elected to his judicial seat earlier this month, appears at a book launch and signing event for his debut book, “To Account For Murder,” Wednesday at the Michigan Historical Center.

The longtime legal eagle has not strayed far from familiar territory with “Murder,” a highly fictionalized thriller inspired by a real-life Michigan murder mystery.

The shooting in 1945 of Albion state Sen. Warren G. Hooper shortly before he was to testify on rampant government corruption made headlines even at a time when the news was still dominated by World War II.

The crime, although linked to the infamous Purple Gang crime syndicate, remains unsolved, having occurred amid a backdrop of gang warfare resulting from the legacy of Prohibition.

The tale served as the jumping-off point for Whitbeck’s novel.

“It was just so dramatic,” Whitbeck said. “(Hooper’s murder) was a turning point. Prior to that, rampant corruption was just the norm in Michigan politics."

Whitbeck first learned of the crime in 1990. It was the inspiration for what would become "To Account For Murder," a project he would work on intermittently over the next 20 years.

Three years ago, after having set the manuscript aside several times, Whitbeck vowed to complete what he’d started.

“I said to myself, ‘I am going to finish this book by the end of the year,’ and I did — or at least I thought I did," he said, with a laugh. "I discovered the wonderful world of editing and revision.”

Whitbeck credits his wife, Stephanie, for enabling him to realize this dream.

“My wife has given me the gift of time,” he said. “I wrote at night, I wrote on weekends. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

But even his wife couldn’t have prepared him for the hurdles a first-time novelist can face on the road to publication.

“I was absolutely unprepared for how hard it is. That’s the first hurdle: You have to finish the damn thing,” Whitbeck said “I worked really hard, and then realized I didn’t have a manuscript remotely ready to send out to literary agents. You have to have an agent, or you won’t get a publisher.”

The 14th draft proved to be the charm.

“To Account For Murder” was published this month by Permanent Press.

“It is an incredible winnowing process.

I’m surprised anyone gets a book published.”

“To Account For Murder” tells the story of Charlie Cahill, who finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery in post- WWII Michigan.

Whitbeck lists Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” and the late Michigan Supreme Court Judge John Volker’s “Anatomy of a Murder” as major influences.

He said his readers will be treated to an emotionally layered ride, interwoven with the courtroom theatrics.

“To a great extent it’s about loss. To some extent it’s a love story. It’s about loyalty and vengeance and your understanding of the characters changes as you learn more about them.”

Still, Whitbeck says the book is about hope.

“There’s an element of personal redemption in this flawed world for these flawed people.”

Although he is already “a quarter of the way” through his follow-up novel — a story set in the present day this time — Whitbeck has no plans to give up his day job, even as he embarks on a mini-promotional tour through January.

“I am having fun. One of the things I like the most about being a judge is that every day, every case is different. I’m always learning: Right now, I’m learning something new every day about the publishing industry.

“I enjoy what I do. It’s the perfect job.”

William C. Whitbeck

of ’To Account For Murder’ Book launch and signing 7 p.m. Wednesday,
Dec. 1 Michigan Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517)