Huddled in nightly crawl space, lawyer trades suit and tie for writer's costume


By day, Thomas W. Keech, the buttoned-down lawyer and bureaucrat, sits in judgment on workers quarreling with their former employers over whether they deserve to receive unemployment benefits.

By night, he dons comfortable old clothes and descends to the basement of his Catonsville home to assume his other persona: Tom Keech, the budding novelist who hunches over his word processor into the early hours of the morning.

"Once I get down there, I really get into it," he said.

Using the working title, "The Crawlspace Conspiracy," he's writing the story of Charles, a young man living in a West Baltimore rooming house, who inherits a tiny row house from his great aunt and decides to live there.

But the house is in the middle of the planned site of a $300 million luxury condo project much beloved of developers and politicians, who plot with and against each other as Charles becomes an obstacle to their desires.

The plot and several subplots are fueled by plenty of political corruption and legislative shenanigans, a community coalition that opposes the project, a beautiful activist nun who runs a soup kitchen and falls for a corrupt state senator, and a love story with a happy ending.

"It's a lot of fun," said Mr. Keech, 44, whose day job since 1981 has been chairing the Board of Appeals for the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.

Following the dictum that authors should write about what they know, he said he applied his experience as a Legal Aid Bureau lawyer in the administrative-law section and three years as the bureau's lobbyist at the General Assembly in Annapolis.

The story features a huge class-action lawsuit in the administrative law area, said Mr. Keech, a 6-foot-4-inch former high hurdler for Mount St. Joseph High School. "I really know how these cases work, and it's not anything like you read in the law books or the newspapers."

His jobs, including one as a taxi driver in Silver Spring during his student days at Catholic University Law School, have been a gold mine of "characterizations," he said. "That's the most interesting part."

Fiction writing, which he has done for years, is his welcome outlet for the inevitable tension that develops from handling some 200 cases of contested jobless benefits a month, he said.

Although he has dozens of short-story ideas kicking around, Mr. Keech said, he is intent on the second draft of his 120,000-word novel. "I hope it will be good enough then to send around to publishers," he said.

"Conspiracy" is actually Mr. Keech's second novel. The first one, about a young man coming of age and his relationship with his father, had been circulated to one publisher and an agent "when I realized that it had no plot," he said.

However, he reshaped the opening scene as a short story and submitted it to a literary contest with more than 30 other entrants last year at the Easton Academy of the Arts. He won.

Novelist Dot Kenney of St. Michaels, who writes as Liz Hamlin and who is vice president of the Eastern Shore Writers Association, was chief judge.

Ms. Kenney said, "I read all the stories -- which were anonymous -- and I knew when I hit that one it was so far above the others in the quality of the writing. This man's feeling when he wrote about the mysterious change of the father toward the boy was deep."

Mr. Keech said he once wrote a three-act play set in a juvenile probation office that he submitted to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival; it was not picked up.

"But it was good experience; every little scene has its own purpose but has to relate to the whole play. That helped me with this novel because, unlike the other one, this one has a plot," he said.

While he has no literary hero, Mr. Keech said he most enjoyed "stories that are funny and have a lot of characters and where the underdogs are battling the system."

Mr. Keech, who grew up in Relay, a southwestern Baltimore County community not far from his new home in Catonsville, has been writing since he was a young man. As a student he won a short-story prize from the Calvert Review, a University of Maryland literary magazine, and in recent years he received honorable mention in two fiction contests run by the Sun Magazine.

"I am a published author, too," he said, laughing as he produced two thick volumes: "Unemployment Insurance Benefits," which he wrote with three other lawyers and which contains "everything you ever wanted to know about unemployment claims" and the "Cumulative Supplement to the Digest of Maryland Unemployment Insurance Decisions."

While Mr. Keech -- who switched only recently from long-hand on yellow legal pads to a computer -- is working in his basement cubby-hole, his wife, Sharon, is apt to be in her second-floor hideaway writing articles for Baltimore's Child, a monthly parenting tabloid. She is associate publisher and associate editor.

But in seeking literary guidance and criticism, Mr. Keech said he didn't turn to his wife; "she doesn't write fiction, and I don't write non-fiction."

His first-line critics, he said, are his brother, Dr. Rea Keech, an English professor at Anne Arundel Community College, and his sister-in-law, Gerry Sweeney, a lawyer and wife of Dennis Sweeney, deputy state attorney general.

"They read the first draft and made suggestions. I have one who is a literary person and one who is a lawyer, and they agreed remarkably on what needs to be done: more dialogue and less narrative."

His brother's reaction to his scene-setting was very encouraging, Mr. Keech said. "My brother, who knows a lot about writing but nothing about politics and lobbyists, said it made him feel like he was being let in on the inside goings-on."

"There were a lot of funny things down there [in the General Assembly] that were too unbelievable to put into fiction," the author said. "Fiction has to have coherence even though real life doesn't."

Donna Watts, a member of the Board of Appeals, said she was reading Mr. Keech's first draft. "I'm into the fourth chapter, and he's introduced four or five really interesting characters who have piqued my curiosity," said Ms. Watts.

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