It’s 3 a.m., and while most attorneys are either fast asleep or staring at the ceiling, wishing they were, Steven Epstein is wide awake and in front of his laptop, chipping away at his fourth book and debut novel.
Amid the witching hour, Epstein has found the two things he needs most — time and inspiration — to write about one of his foremost passions: murder.
“I’m not intrigued by murder itself; I’m intrigued by relationships that devolve from very strong, connected relationships of love and affection to the point of hating that person enough to kill them,” Epstein says. “It’s the relationship aspect of … ‘murder is the answer’ that fascinates me.”
His first work of fiction, “All Too Sudden,” is a coupling of murder and Epstein’s other predilection, golf. In “All Too Sudden,” he pens the story of professional golfer Ben Goldstein, who unexpectedly rises to glory before his wife is murdered and his life forever altered.
“The story came to me in a thunderbolt of inspiration right after I finished watching the British Open in 2021,” Epstein says. “The notion came to me: What if someone grabbed all this fame and glory from winning one of the greatest golf tournaments in the world and they became the center of a big murder mystery within days thereafter, and the whole world was watching?”
He’d rather be golfing
Although Epstein calls Goldstein a “very autobiographical protagonist,” from a firsthand perspective, Epstein knows nothing of homicide. The civil litigator and board-certified family law specialist with Poyner Spruill in Raleigh has educated himself on the subject through news accounts and court cases.
But golf is more personal. In real life, Epstein fancies himself somewhat of a linksman, regularly watching world-class golfers compete in major tournaments — both live and on TV — and occasionally teeing up himself. A student of the game who split his time in high school between the greens and wrestling mats, Epstein says that his storyline could’ve been very different.
“Had I had more talent as a golfer, I’d never have become a lawyer in the first place,” Epstein says. “And even after I became a lawyer, I still had delusions of at least caddying on the PGA Tour someday or finding some way to work in golf broadcasting.”
Those dreams didn’t materialize for Epstein as they did for the protagonist in his novel, but like Epstein’s fictional account of Goldstein and his plight, his real-life story is still being written.
A counselor and a penman
The second of three children born to a schoolteacher and a salesman, Epstein describes his upbringing as unremarkable. The New York native became interested in the law after taking a high school class that saw him conduct mock trials both in the classroom and in an actual courtroom.
“Between that and ‘L.A. Law,’ I was hooked,” he says.
Following that path, Epstein moved down South and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina.
Less by design, perhaps, is the road that led Epstein toward becoming an author. Before he dove into the fantasy world of golf glory and dead wives, he chronicled the real-life case of Michelle Young, a pregnant mother bludgeoned to death in her own home — by her husband — on Raleigh’s Birchleaf Drive.
“[I got into writing] completely by accident,” Epstein says. “There was something about the Jason Young murder case tried in Wake County that I found fascinating. My life had a very similar path as the murder victim’s, having migrated from Long Island to attend college in North Carolina and then deciding to make North Carolina home, and eventually marrying a native North Carolinian in what turned out to be a bad marriage.”
That fascination led to the first of Epstein’s three true-crime thrillers, 2019’s “Murder on Birchleaf Drive: The True Story of the Michelle Young Murder Case.”
Epstein, who knew the judge and several lawyers involved in the case, says he decided to challenge himself after no one else wrote about the killing and trials, which some say had as many twists and turns as any work of fiction ever imagined.
“I had no idea I would even finish the project, let alone get it published,” Epstein says. “I didn’t plan to write a second book, but I had several people at book signings ask me what I was writing next. Wanting to have a better answer than ‘Why do I need to write another book?’ I decided to write a second book.”
“Birchleaf” was followed by “Evil at Lake Seminole” (2020) and “Extreme Punishment: The Chilling True Story of Acclaimed Law Professor Dan Markel’s Murder” (2022).
In “Extreme Punishment,” Epstein tells the story of a decorated Florida State University law professor, Markel, who was shot dead by two contract killers in his Tallahassee garage in 2014. Markel’s ex-wife, who also taught at FSU, was never charged but has been considered a co-conspirator.
On May 3 in Mecklenburg County, Epstein will host a continuing legal education program to discuss Markel’s murder and its circumstances, including the family law battles — financial and custodial issues between him and his ex-wife — that likely led to his slaying.
“Those battles ended the day two hitmen executed Dan in cold blood,” Epstein says.
Change of plans
It’s impossible to know whether the grass would have been greener had Epstein become a big-time golf superstar. He believes that he would’ve toiled in obscurity, struggled to make money, and spent most of his life in a bad mood, but the sport is never far from his consciousness. He says that professional golfers regularly appear in his dreams, including the recent vision of him and Jordan Spieth “shooting the bull.”
“I’m so immersed in the world of golf that I think I would’ve enjoyed the heck out of it; I was just never good enough to make it happen,” he says. “It’s kind of neat that my life is coming full circle now, and I’m able to write about that as if it did happen.”
Though he may never wear the Green Jacket (or make a dime on a round of golf), Epstein has accomplished plenty. He has successfully practiced law for more than three decades and is well on his way to becoming a renowned crime author. But what would motivate a busy attorney to wake up in the middle of the night, forgoing a commodity as precious as sleep, to work on something so far away from what he once envisioned of himself?
“I think part of life is learning how to continually reinvent yourself,” Epstein says. “Writing is that thing for me now, and it might be that thing for me from here to the grave.”