Interview: Mark McGinn talks about his latest thriller, Presumed Guilty

Mark McGinn, is the author of three previous novels, Deceit, Trust No One and Best Served Cold. His latest novel, Presumed Guilty, is a contemporary NZ story (set in a time where Treaty settlements were being debated) with the editor of a newspaper accused of the murder of his wife, who was an editor of an investigative magazine. During a lengthy career in the New Zealand court system, Mark had the privilege of seeing some of the finest lawyers and judges in action in many notable criminal jury trials. That experience and his subsequent background in psychological assessment has enriched and driven his crime writing.

Tell us a little about Presumed Guilty.

It’s a legal thriller and whodunnit wrapped into one story which begins with a murder and a verdict in an unrelated case where the main character, lawyer Sasha Stace, has successfully defended a sleezy politician on a charge of rape. Sasha concludes that’s the last nail in the coffin as far as her disenchantment with criminal law is concerned so when the opportunity to become a judge comes up, she grabs it. Then along comes a young lawyer who begs for help to defend a man accused of the opening murder. Sasha says no thanks, so the lawyer drops a bombshell and tells Sasha she is her biological daughter, the baby Sasha was forced to give up for adoption 30 years previously. And to add to the complexity, the man accused of the murder is a former long time partner who had cheated on her.

That’s the context of how the story is set up. Throw in a grudge-holding and psychologically disturbed prosecutor in cahoots with corrupt government officials and you’ve got the basis for a great page-turning thriller.

What inspired you to write this book?

In my business consultancy I’ve worked a lot in print and broadcasting media. I got very interested in the concept of editorial independence and the idea that a newspaper could take advertising revenue from a valued customer one day and end up holding them to account for their conduct on another. That and the concept of protecting the identity of a news source led me thinking to what would happen if an editor drove a news agenda to legitimately criticize the police and prosecution service and that editor was later suspected of murdering his wife.

What research was involved?

Not as much as in other books where I’ve done medical research (Best Served Cold) and location research (Trust No One and Deceit). This time it was more recalling appropriate legal procedures that I became immersed in when I worked in the High Court.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Haha! What routine would that be? There is no money in books unless you sell many overseas so I work full time. That means I grab opportunities to write and edit when I can. One cast iron rule I follow is to work with a good editor and in Anna Rogers, I have one of the best. I’m very fortunate in that regard.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

One that’s particularly appropriate, given the internal story of Sasha’s inner life would be, U2’s  “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Cate Blanchett would be great as Sasha, Ian Mune as her much loved mentor and stepfather would be Mac. I think Tom Cruise would be good in the role of prosecutor Quentin Fisk, and he’d enjoy being an antagonist.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

What I often enjoy is the dialogue and in this case the cross examination and the little quips and humour.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

What I normally do which is share a special bottle of red with my wife as part of a celebratory dinner. There’s usually food and wine in my books too.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

A political thriller called The 500 by Matthew Quirk. One of my writing mentors, Shawn Coyne (author of The Story Grid) recommended Quirk as a talented writer whose book he had edited. I contacted Quirk and asked which of his thrillers would he recommend to demonstrate his editor’s five commandments of writing a scene. The 500 certainly lived up to that. By the way, those commandments are an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis (question), a climax and resolution. Check out The Story Grid if you’d like to learn more.

Although the sub title is :What good editors should know” it’s a terrific resource for writers too.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’ve finished a police detective mystery story. It’s taken me longer than any other story to write, partly because I’ve been busy with paid work and partly because I set myself a challenge of putting my main character in every scene. While that’s a difficult constraint, (less freedom to explore other interesting points of view), if i get it right, it has the benefit of readers becoming immersed in an interesting and compelling character’s life. So I’m now looking forward to the first edit of that draft.

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Karen McKenzie Karen McKenzie is a Director of NZ Booklovers. She has worked in book publishing for the past 17 years, as a publicist and also selling international rights. Karen is passionate about book publishing and enjoys working with authors to help them realise their dreams. She is also a published author of twelve books under the name ‘Karen McMillan’. More info at

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