Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Lisa Scottoline’s legal novels (and her other work, too) have gotten her a great deal of critical and commercial acclaim. They’re highly regarded, and it’s about time this feature included one of them. So, let’s do that today, and turn the spotlight on Accused, the first of her Rosato and DiNunzio novels.
Mary DiNunzio is a Philadelphia attorney who works for Rosato & Associates, led by Benedetta ‘Bennie’ Rosato. Scottoline fans will remember that she joined the firm in the earlier Rosato and Associates series. Mary’s just been made a partner in the firm, which will, of course, mean that a lot of things change for her. As if that’s not enough change, she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Anthony Rotunno. It’s all exciting, even if Mary has some anxieties about it all.
Then she gets a new client. Thirteen-year-old Allegra Gardner wants to hire the firm to find out who killed her sister, Fiona. The murder happened six years earlier at a party that was held at her father’s new offices. The police soon arrested one of the catering company’s staff, Lonnie Stall, for the crime. There was evidence against him, too – evidence strong enough that the case was pursued in court. At first, Lonnie pled not guilty. But then, his attorney persuaded him to change his plea in exchange for a reduced sentence.
There’s good reason to believe that Lonnie is guilty, but Allegra is convinced he’s innocent. She wants Mary to prove that, and to find out who killed Fiona. Mary and her best friend (and law colleague), Judy Carrier, start looking into the case. Almost immediately, they run into several problems. First, the evidence against Lonnie Stall is convincing. Second, Allegra is a minor – only thirteen. She can legally hire an attorney, but she is legally limited in other ways. Third, Allegra is emotionally fragile. She has strong opinions about the case, but how much of what she says can be relied on? There’s also the fact that her father, John Gardner, is wealthy and powerful. And he doesn’t want this case raked up. To him, and his wife, Jane, it’s just needlessly bringing up old pain, and for no reason other than Allegra’s (unhealthy and probably irrational) obsession.
Still, Mary has taken on a client. To her, that means she does everything that she can to find out the truth. It’s not going to be easy, though. The Gardners will not co-operate, and they’ve made it clear that no-one who works for them will, either. And the murder happened six years ago. That means people’s memories may not be as clear. Little by little, though, Mary finds out the truth about the case.
This is a legal novel. So, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the legal procedures involved. For instance, at one point, Mary has a conversation with Philadelphia’s District Attorney about re-opining the case. During that conversation, it’s made clear how difficult it is, and what evidence is needed, to officially re-open an investigation, especially if there’s no obvious question of, say, negligence.
Another legal issue that comes up has to do with Allegra’s rights. She is a minor, so things aren’t as clear as they are when an adult is involved. And her lawyers may not have the latitude that lawyers for adults have. On the other hand, she does have some rights, and those are discussed as well. All of that said, though, this isn’t a ‘courtroom drama.’
The story takes place in Philadelphia, and that setting is a very important element of the novel. Geographically, culturally, and in other ways, Scottoline places the reader in Philadelphia. The setting and context will resonate with anyone who’s lived there.
Another important element is the circle of Mary’s friends and family members. She is a loving daughter with a close relationship to her parents and their friends. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional sleuths who cannot maintain bonds with others will be pleased at that. It’s a close-knit Italian-American family, as is Anthony’s, and that culture is woven through the novel. In fact, in more than one scene, Mary gets help from her father and his friends, and she knows very well how lucky she is to have them in her life.
That circle of friends and family plays an important role in solving the case, too. Mary is a smart, knowledgeable, skilled lawyer. But she’s not a superhero (nor does she act like one). She relies on help from others when it’s needed.
The story is told from Mary’s point of view (third person, past tense), so we learn a lot about her. She is, as I say, smart and quick thinking. She is absolutely committed to her clients, and, in this case, to setting Lonnie Stall free if he is innocent. She gets emotionally involved with her cases, which even she admits can impact her judgement. She makes her share of mistakes, as we all do. But she is a quick learner and resourceful.
The truth about Fiona Gardner’s murder is not a pretty one. And in that sense, it’s a sad story. But the answers do bring a sense of closure, and we get the sense that the Gardners will heal. What’s more, there’s a sense of wit throughout the story that keeps it from being bleak. It’s also worth noting that there’s very little violence in the story, and what there is, is not brutal.
Accused is the story of what happens to a family when one of its members is murdered. It takes a legal perspective on what’s happened and features an attorney who is determined to find out the truth. It’s set distinctively in Philadelphia and has a real sense of that city. But what’s your view? Have you read Accused? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 7 January/Tuesday, 8 January – The Accident on the A35 – Graeme Macrae Burne
Monday, 14 January/Tuesday, 15 January – Portrait of a Murderer – Anne Meredith
Monday, 21 January/Tuesday, 22 January – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vaseem Khan