The Privilege


Joseph Antonelli, who never lost a case he should have won and won nearly every case he should have lost, is about to see his client, Justin Friedrich, convicted for a crime he did not commit. All the evidence points to his guilt. His wife was found shot to death in the bed-room of their yacht in the San Francisco marina. He had fought with her that evening in front of hundreds of people at a New Year’s Eve party at the Fairmont Hotel. No one believed that he had been asleep, passed out, on the sofa in the front cabin and that he had seen only the shadow of the real killer as the killer ran away. Though the murder weapon had not been found, everyone believed it when the prosecution suggested he had simply thrown it into the bay. Friedrich does not have a chance. And then the real killer approaches Antonelli, tells him that he may be in trouble and may need a lawyer.

Famous and enigmatic, James Michael Redfield, the head of a high tech company that leads the world in the development of artificial intelligence, wants to know make sure that the lawyer-client privilege means that “nothing I tell you can ever be revealed.” When Antonelli tells him that whatever he tells him he, Antonelli will take to his grave, Redfield gives him the evidence that proves Justin Friedrich did not murder his wife. Friedrich is innocent, and Redfield is guilty. But why, if Redfield does not want Friedrich convicted, did he wait until the last minute, wait until the trial was almost over, wait until the last witness has been called, to give Antonelli what he needed?

Before Antonelli can even begin to solve that riddle, there is another murder, and Antonelli finds himself a prisoner, an unwilling participant in a conspiracy he does not under-stand. Redfield tells him that he has to take the case, represent a second innocent defendant, because if he does not do it there won’t be any last minute discovery of evidence that will keep an innocent man from Death Row. Antonelli understands enough to know that this second murder, this second trial, will not be the end of it. He will have to keep trying cases as long as Redfield confronts him with the choice of defending an innocent man or letting him be found guilty.

Antonelli, who has tried cases as long as he can remember, thought he had become familiar with every kind of criminal behavior, but never, in his long experience, has he ever known anyone like James Michael Redfield. He understands what Redfield is doing; he does not understand why. Not until he learns that. for Redfield, it isn’t about murder at all; it is all about the trial. Only a trial can show the world what Redfield believes it needs to know.

D.W. Buffa, described by one critic, as “perhaps our greatest writers of contemporary fiction,” has written a novel unlike any you have read, and in James Michael Redfield has created a character you will never forget. What Larry King said of the author’s second novel, The Prosecution, can be said with even more emphasis about The Privilege: “You’ll love this book. If you don’t, you’re at the morgue.”


  1.  Does the title take the readers into the story?

             A title can tell the reader what kind of book it is, whether it is, for example, a murder mystery, a love story, or a courtroom drama.  At other times, it can tell something about the story itself, something that, after you have read it, makes it easy to remember.  The title The Great Gatsby does not tell you anything about what kind of novel it is, but, once you have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, that title stays with you forever.  The Privilege tries to do both these things.

             The Privilege refers to the attorney-client privilege, the privilege that requires a lawyer to keep secret anything his client may tell him.  Defending a client for a murder he did not commit, Joseph Antonelli is losing at trial when a new client confesses, or seems to confess, to the crime.   How can Antonelli save an innocent man without violating the privilege with the guilty man?  That question is difficult enough, but Antonelli will also have to find a way to save himself when he finds himself a pawn in a game he does not understand, a game in which other murders will be committed, other innocent defendants will be put on trial, and, unless Antonelli agrees to represent them, the evidence that can prove their innocence will never be revealed. The mystery is not who committed murder; the mystery is why it is so important that the innocent be put on trial and why Antonelli defend them.

            The Privilege does not refer to the attorney-client privilege alone; it also refers to the privileged lives of men and women who have too much money and too little conscience.  It also refers to the privilege of being gifted with the kind of remarkable intelligence that allows the driving force behind the action of the story to control things in a way, and for a reason, that, for a time at least, no one is able to grasp.

2.  What is in a name?

             The Privilege is the ninth novel in which Joseph Antonelli is both the narrator and the main character.  He was given the name because I wanted to have an Italian, or, more specifically, a Sicilian, who, instead of a low-life mobster, was as good a courtroom lawyer as there was, someone serious about what he does, and serious about the world around him.  I named the woman he is with Tangerine, for no other reason than that I have always like the song by that title, and because the words of that song come closer than anything else to describing the heart-throbbing, breath taking, effect she has on everyone who sees her.

3.  How surprised would your teenager reader self be by your novel?

             When I was a teenager, people were reading Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and everyone was talking about what they read, serious novels that dealt with some of the tragedies of life.  So, in that sense, I would not have been surprised.  There has been an element of tragedy in most of what I have written.  The innocent may be acquitted in a courtroom drama, but someone lost their life, and no one has been held responsible, and the defendant, the innocent defendant, has been put through hell.  At least most of them.  Not, as it turns out, Alan Boe, as the reader of The Privilege will discover.  The Privilege is a tragedy, but for a somewhat different reason than is usually the case.  It has less to do with what happened to the victim, or I should say, victims, than what happens to everyone else, including, perhaps, even the reader.

4.  Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?  Which do you change more?

             I usually know when I start the way I want the story to end, but I did not know even that when I wrote The Privilege.  I knew that I wanted to write about the dilemma posed when Antonelli learns from one client what had really happened in a case he was on the verge of losing, but it only started to come together as I wrote it.  The story, as often, or even as always, happens, began to tell itself.  That is not as strange as it may seem.  How often do we hear someone say that a thought suddenly came to them.  We never ask, where did it come from?  It happens when we began to concentrate on something; it happens when we start to write.

             The beginning, as someone used to say, is more than half.  Everything follows from that.  It establishes time and place, and it sets the mood.  Edith Wharton, the great novelist, insisted that the essence of the story, the whole story, should be found on the first page.

5.  Do you see much of yourself in your characters?  Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

             The Privilege, like the other Antonelli novels, is told in the first person.  Writing in the first person as Joseph Antonelli, I am Antonelli.  But Antonelli is not me, if you collect my meaning.  Writing about other characters is like observing someone – you see them, you hear them, yo make judgments about them, but you do not, as such, identify with them.  The main thing is to make them as lifelike as you can.  That does not mean they have to resemble, in whole or in part, anyone you know, or even anyone you have any reason to think could ever exist.  One of the main characters in The Privilege, Alan Boe, is a complete impossibility – and one of the most lifelike characters I have ever known, if you will permit me to say this of a purely fictional character of my own invention.  But even Alan Boe is drawn from experience, a reading of ancient history.  He is what Socrates might have been like had he been born here, in America, sometime in the middle of the twentieth century.

6.  What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

             Years of trying cases in the criminal courts gave me a knowledge of the way in which a trial is organized and conducted, and a sense of the intangibles that affect what a jury will do.  The years I had the great good fortune to work for Phil Hart, the most respected member of the United States Senate, gave me whatever insight I might have about the shifting boundaries between politics and the law, and, more importantly, the effect someone’s character has on their ability to persuade.

Interview with the author on making The Privilege into a Motion Picture:

             When my first novel, The Defense, was published in l997, the first question almost everyone who knew me asked was, “Is it going to be made into a movie?”  The second question, almost always, was, “Who do you think should play the lead?”

             I was surprised.  I should not have been.  What we see on film has become, for many of us, the measure, not just of a novel’s success, but of its importance.  It is, for that reason, often assumed that the author must have had a particular actor or actress in mind when he created at least some of the characters who fill the pages of his work.  And, let me confess, when I first started writing I would sometimes wonder who might be able to show on the screen what I was trying to describe with my pen.  I knew that Leopold Rifkin, the judge in The Defense, could have been played perfectly by Ben Kingsley.  I could see him doing it.   Horace Woolner, the district attorney, could only have been played by James Earl Jones.  The defense lawyer, the same Joseph Antonelli who is the defense lawyer in The Privilege, – well, he was always a problem.  John Garfield could have done it, but Garfield had been dead for nearly half a century.

             Now, more than twenty years later, trying to cast The Privilege, I wish that instead of 2021, it was 1950.  It would have been easy then.  Antonelli, the lawyer who never loses, would be played by Glen Ford, and Tangerine, the woman he lives with, a woman so good looking that even other, beautiful, women are not jealous, by Ava Gardner.  Charles Laughton would have been unforgettable as the professor of philosophy who raises questions no one had heard in a courtroom before, and only Orson Wells could have played the enigmatic James Michael Redfield.  Now, today, the choices are not as easy, but if choices have to be made, George Clooney would play Antonelli and Sean Penn would play Redfield.

             My first choice to direct The Privilege would be Francis Ford Coppola.  He has been known to do interesting things with stories about Sicilians, and what better Sicilian to portray than Joseph Antonelli who, like every good Sicilian, has his own understanding of what justice means.  A second choice would be a director whose name I do not know, the director of the Italian motion picture, Open Doors, the best courtroom drama ever put on film.