'Female John Grisham' releases 3rd legal thriller

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

When she was a sex crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C., lawyer-turned-novelist Allison Leotta said her biggest challenge was convincing frightened witnesses that they needed to testify.

That happened often when trials revolved around the brutal street gang called Mara Salvatrucha, commonly called MS-13. So it wasn't much of a stretch for her to extrapolate those experiences when writing her latest novel, "Speak of the Devil" (Touchstone $25), her third featuring sex crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis.

"As a novelist, you need to take your characters, put them in a tree, and throw rocks at them - big rocks. For this one, I needed something really scary. MS-13 fits that bill. They're brutal, notoriously violent, erratic about their violence, and they have no respect for law enforcement. They seemed like a perfect answer and a novel seemed like a good place to explore this really disturbing trend in American cities and schools," explained Leotta.

A Michigan native and the eldest of three, Leotta is a graduate of Michigan State University and Harvard University Law School. She followed in the footsteps of her father, Alan Harnisch, of Bloomfield Hills, who's a former prosecutor. Currently, she lives outside Washington, D.C. with Michael, her husband of 11 years and fellow attorney, and two children.

Leotta will be signing copies of her latest novel on Tuesday, Aug. 6--the day it's officially released--at Books-A-Million, located at 31150 Southfield Rd. in Beverly Hills (where the old Borders Books & Music was housed), from 7-8:30 p.m.

For "Speak of the Devil," she conducted extensive research into MS-13, interviewing police officers, federal agents, and attorneys. Leotta handled a number of cases involving MS-13 members as a prosecutor.

"I was never threatened personally. I knew people who were. I know my witnesses were terrified, and it was a struggle to get them to talk about the gang. The promise to keep them safe was a constant concern. It's a very challenging case when all of your witnesses are terrified of testifying," recalled Leotta.

According to Leotta, MS-13 has mushroomed from a small gang of thugs in Los Angeles into an international organization with an estimated 50,000 members with cliques in almost every major American city. They kill for fun, throw parties for the purpose of raping their female guests, and coerce their girlfriends into becoming prostitutes. MS-13 actively recruits middle-schoolers--and never lets members walk away.

The novel opens with MS-13 raiding a brothel the same time the police do, resulting in a battle between the police and MS-13. This was inspired by an actual event.

"In this case, truth is scarier than fiction," said Leotta.

In the aftermath, one of the MS-13 members who's arrested is carrying a photo of Nina Flores, a homicide detective killed in an unsolved murder four years ago. Nina is the late wife of prosecutor Jack Bailey, Anna's fiancée. Nina's ghost haunts the happy couple's wedding plans, threatening to drive Anna and Jack apart. Furthermore, MS-13 "greenlights" Anna, marking her for death.

"The moment you start reading, you'll realize Allison Leotta doesn't just write about this world. She lives in it - and works in it. She's absorbed all its darkest parts. That's why 'Speak of the Devil' comes to life in the most haunting and best way," said New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia University Law School.

Even though she has a strong legal background, Leotta confessed that the legal scenes are difficult to write. The sex scenes, on the other hand...

"They're the fun part to write. The law stuff I agonize over. It takes a long time to write a legal scene. I have a responsibility to be accurate. The sex scenes I can have fun with. Nobody can say you're doing it wrong," she said, laughing. "I do feel like this is the best book I've written yet and number four is going to be better."

Although the next book doesn't have a title yet, Leotta brings Anna back to her native Michigan to a fictional suburb of Flint, which Leotta described as a "Swartz Creek-like town."

Leotta's books have earned high praise from fellow novelists and earned her the nickname "the female John Grisham," something she stated she's honored to be called.

Published: Mon, Aug 12, 2013

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