John Martel by Day, Joe Silverhound by Night
He’s always seemed to lead several lives. These days, one of those is as an author of popular thrillers
Published in 2004 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 24, 2004
Updated on August 10, 2015
“I suppose I’ve lived by that old Yogi Berra adage: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it,’” says John Martel.
The securities lawyer and best-selling legal thriller author, has also, at various times, been an Air Force pilot, a countryrock singer, a TV talking head and a National Masters hurdles champion.
He is probably best known now as the author of four thrillers, including Partners and The Alternate. But although he studied creative writing at UC–Berkeley upon the completion of his Air Force duty during the Korean War, his writing career didn’t begin until relatively late in life.
“I didn’t have the guts to try to make it as a writer. The G.I. Bill was there, and I felt I earned it, so I studied law.”
In 1964 he became a named partner in what’s now Farella, Braun & Martel, joining when there were just a handful of lawyers. Today the firm has 140.
For a time in the mid-’70s, Martel led two distinctly different existences: by day he was a “respectable trial lawyer with long hair representing the Bank of America,” while evenings he morphed into country-rock singer/songwriter “Joe Silverhound” playing with his band at clubs like the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
This continued until he got involved in an infamous and highly public lawsuit between winemaker brothers Peter and Robert Mondavi. Martel won a precedent-setting victory for Robert. “It was the first time a judge ordered the dissolution of a successful ongoing company,” he says. After that case, Martel decided that his future lay in law.
A few years later in 1982, Randolph Hearst, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner selected Martel from the top five trial lawyers in Northern California to represent them in the retrial of an anti-trust suit brought by the Pacific Sun and others. At issue was the joint operating agreement forged by the Chronicle and Examiner in 1965.
The first trial had ended in a hung jury, 5-1 in favor of the plaintiffs, and Hearst & Co. came to Martel looking for a miracle. Martel delivered, snatching back the win after a three-month trial.
Although he’s been a “complex litigation specialist” most of his career, another fork took Martel into the heart of perhaps the two most publicized murder trials of the 1990s: those of the Menendez Brothers and of O.J. Simpson.
“The first Menendez trial resulted in a hung jury, and I was talking to Arlo Smith, who was the San Francisco D.A., lamenting the problems prosecutors have trying their cases against highpriced, highly skilled defense lawyers, and said there should be some way that top trial lawyers could get involved to level the playing field.” Smith passed Martel’s remarks along to L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who recruited Martel to help the prosecution.
Martel conducted mock trials and brought in a jury consulting firm. The second trial, of course, resulted in the brothers’ convictions. Garcetti passed Martel’s name along to Bill Hodgeman, the lead counsel for the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson case, who hired him. On the first day of trial, however, Hodgeman had a heart attack and was replaced by Chris Darden. “In the mock trials, I played the role of Marcia Clark,” Martel says. “And I grew concerned because when we watched the mock jury deliberations through a one-way glass, I heard some horrifying things. I told Marcia, ‘This is going to be a long, hard trial.’ Marcia said, ‘I can handle this.’” Martel went on talk shows like Larry King Live and Today as a spokesman for the prosecution but felt that Clark thought she “didn’t need the help of a civil lawyer from San Francisco” and drifted away from the case.
Afterwards, when Martel gave speeches on media distortion of the news, he interjected his O.J. experience into the talks. “I started by pulling a glove out of my pocket and trying to fit it over my outstretched hand. It wouldn’t fit. Then I relaxed my hand, and the glove went on easily.”
Martel insists he didn’t think about becoming an author until he woke up one morning with an idea for a book: what if a lawyer was so evil that to bolster his client’s claim in an environmental lawsuit, he poisoned his own client? (Martel swears that after the book was published, he had lawyers come up to him and say, “I don’t see the problem here.”)
A friend of a friend of a friend told an agent about the book idea, who set up a meeting. The agent asked to see a couple of chapters — then a couple more — and within a couple of weeks Simon & Schuster and Bantam were bidding on Partners. Then came the hard part. “It took me five years to write the damn thing.”
He says he wasn’t as surprised that the book became a best-seller as that it was published at all. “Of all the businesses I’ve been in, this is the toughest. In a trial, it’s a hard alley fight, but you know what the rules are. You know the guy on the witness stand is out to get you — and your opponent is out to stop you. But there are not too many rules in the entertainment industry.”
His second and third novels, 1994’s Conflicts of Interest and 1998’s The Alternate also took about five years apiece, as Martel still A NATIONAL MASTER Martel seems to succeed no matter the task, from winning a National Masters in hurdles at age 66 to penning four popular legal thrillers practiced law full-time. Asked why he doesn’t quit, he replies, “Maybe if my name wasn’t on the door. … Also five of my 10 best friends are partners in the firm.”
Now a part-time lawyer and full-time author, he wrote his fourth book, Billy Strobe, in two years, and now hopes to knock one out biennially.
While writing Conflicts of Interest, he unexpectedly returned to a long-lost love, running hurdles.
“I saw my daughter, Melissa, who is a 1,500-meter runner, running in an ‘All Comers’ meet, and I saw a bunch of older folks running, and an 85-year-old man pole-vaulting. I thought, ‘I gotta do this.’” Martel, a former hurdles runner, immediately drove to the store, bought running shoes and returned the following week. “My daughter said, ‘No, Dad, you can’t just do it.’” So Martel hired a coach and began training.
Though he sustained a serious injury, and doctors told him he’d never run hurdles again, a couple of years later he returned to the track, and in 1997 ran the fastest time ever in his class and won the National Masters in hurdles for his age group.
These days Martel divides his time between Palm Springs in the winter and the Santa Cruz Mountains the rest of the year. He lives with Bonnie, his third wife, who he’s been married to 12 years. “I took a lot of forks, but this time I got it right,” he laughs.