David Ellis gets up about 3:30 a.m. every day to write.
But it’s not the usual turgid prose about rights, wrong and remedies that arise in the civil and criminal cases he reviews. He saves that for his day job as an Illinois appeals court justice from the First District in Chicago.
It’s in the early morning that the 51-year-old Ellis unleashes an imagination that has made him one of the better-selling — sometimes best-selling — authors in the crime fiction genre.
Here’s how one publicist described Ellis’ 2013 book “The Last Alibi.”
“Something about James Drinker seems off from the start, but (defense lawyer Jason) Kolarich doesn’t give it too much thought. Until another murder occurs. And then another. And as he begins to probe his client’s life and story more closely, it quickly becomes clear that nothing about James Drinker is what it seems ... and that the target of the frame-up isn’t Drinker, but Kolarich.”
If that doesn’t sound crisp enough for readers, Ellis has written other books. He’s done nine of his own and co-authored six more with bestselling mystery writer James Patterson.
Their latest is “The Black Book.”
That make Ellis a rarity — judge by day and crime fiction writer by night.
He dismisses the notion that dual status makes him particularly noteworthy.
“On a day-to-day basis, there’s nothing about my life that feels like celebrity,” Ellis said.
There’s a reason for that. Writing is hard work. So is judging.
But Ellis said he wouldn’t have it any other way. Indeed, he noted that he was a “writer before I was a lawyer.”
He started penning stories early in life. Ellis wrote a play — a courtroom drama about a theft — in grade school that was put on by his class, and he continued to write fiction.
“Even when it was not required, I did it for fun,” he recalled.
Ellis, who grew up in Downers Grove, said he got away from writing when he enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he studied finance and graduated in 1990. Then came law school at Northwestern, followed by a stint in private practice.
About three years out of law school, Ellis said he conducted a “what-am-I-doing-with-my-life” review during which he harkened back to his love of fiction writing.
“I realized I had always enjoyed writing. I asked myself, ‘Why aren’t you writing?’ And I didn’t have a good answer,” he said.
That’s when Ellis vowed that he to write a novel and do his best to get it published.
He said he studied “how good authors write” and wrote and rewrote his mystery. Three years later, it was done, and all he needed was an agent to pitch it.
Agents, however, are hard to come by because so many would-be writers are trying to find one. He introduced himself to dozens via an introductory cover letter and “probably 75 said no.”
Then he tried again with a more interesting cover letter, one designed to put prospective agents in the shoes of his mystery novel’s main character.
“I sent it to the same 75 people,” he said.
This time, Ellis got a bite from an agent who wanted to sell his book to Penguin Putnam. Penguin Putnam bit, too, and in 2002 Ellis’ first novel — “Line of Vision” — became reality.
“It took me 18 months to get an agent. It took me three weeks to get a publisher,” he said.
Marty Kalish is a young man suffocating in the heat of an affair with a married woman named Rachel. When Rachel’s husband disappears one night, Marty is one of the first to be questioned. With few likely suspects, the police arrest him for murder. We know Marty was outside their home that night. We know he has a motive. We know he’s guilty of something. But is it murder?
“Line of Vision” was well received, winning the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel by an American author.
After winning a contract from his publisher, Ellis kept on going from there. He created an ongoing hero — defense lawyer Jason Kolarich — with “The Hidden Man” in 2011. His 2006 novel — “In the Company of Liars” — toys with traditional writing techniques by starting the story at the end and moving backwards.
“The book is written in chronological reverse,” said Ellis. “It’s got a beginning you don’t see coming.”
Amid his writing forays, Ellis has built a busy and successful professional life, working in private practice followed by stints as assistant legal counsel and then legal counsel to Illinois Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
It was in the latter role that Ellis prosecuted the impeachment inquiry that led to the removal from office in 2009 of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In 2014, Ellis was elected to a state appeals court seat in Cook County, a position he enjoys because his job is to determine what the law commands.
“If the law compels a result, I follow that result,” he said.Ellis said the various cases that come through his courtroom provide plenty of food for his thoughts about plot lines. Lately, though he’s taken his plot lines from co-writer Patterson, teaming up on books that become instant best-sellers.
“I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t,” he said.
It adds up to a busy life for Ellis and his wife.
He writes from about 3:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., when they get their three children up and off to school. Then it’s, once again, time for the pattern of his life — judging by day and writing by night.
“I just turned one (novel) in, and I’m starting another one. I go from one to the next. I love it,” Ellis said.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.