Jon L. Breen

scottoline_lisa_small“We have plenty of superheroes in fiction. What we need are more Italian girls.”

Scottoline briefed Mystery Scene in 2003 on matters literary and lawyerly. Don't miss Come Home (April 2012), the latest from this powerhouse thriller writer.

Photo: April Narby

Philadelphia lawyer Lisa Scottoline’s first two novels, Everywhere that Mary Went (1993) and Final Appeal (1994), were both nominated for Edgar Awards in the paperback original category, and the latter was a winner. Moving to hardcover with her third book, she has become one of the most commercially and critically successful writers of legal thrillers. Now a full-time writer, Lisa Scottoline regularly appears on bestseller lists with her novels about the all-female Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates.

The novels shift the focus among the lawyers of the Rosato firm, each of them a distinct and vividly realized character. Benedetta “Bennie” Rosato herself, introduced in Legal Tender (1996), is the central character of Mistaken Identity (1999), in which she is surprised to learn the client she has been engaged to defend on a murder charge is her twin sister. Rosato plays a secondary role in subsequent books, including Moment of Truth (2000), featuring Mary DiNunzio of Scottoline’s first novel; The Vendetta Defense (2001), centered on Judy Carrier; and Courting Trouble (2002), featuring Anne Murphy.

In the latest book, Dead Ringer (HarperCollins), all of these women contribute their humor and expertise, but the focus returns to Bennie. Rosato & Associates is in financial trouble, and a venture into the unfamiliar, cutthroat world of class-action law looks like a possible way out. Then to add to Bennie’s headaches, her bad-news twin sister reappears. Not only is Alice physically identical to Bennie, she is every bit as savvy and resilient. Alice proves to be a formidable and even ruthless enemy, motivated by evil, jealousy, and a nasty case of sibling rivalry.

MYSTERY SCENE: Some popular writers, like Stephen King, are instinctive, beginning the story without knowing exactly where it’s going or what will happen next. Others, like Dean Koontz, plan every move carefully in advance. I have the impression you’re more in the Stephen King category. Is that true?

SCOTTOLINE: Yes, you're right. I don't generally write with an outline, but rather make it up as I go. Besides the fact that I’m just not organized enough to put everything into an outline, I think it helps keep the writing process fun, and I hope that translates into my books. It also provides the flexibility to let the action mold the characters as I go, and it assures that all of the action will flow logically (essential in a wannabe page-turner) because the book is built by asking what would happen next after each event, or chapter. Of course, it also means that I don’t know how the book ends until it is actually finished, and sometimes, even I am surprised. Not the best admission, but it’s the truth.

scottoline_deadringerYou seem to solicit and consider reader feedback more than most writers. When you put a first chapter on your website and invited your fans to play editor, what kinds of responses did you receive? Can you give any specific examples of advice that you did or did not take?

Being a writer is a very solitary profession, but I am a real people person, which sounds corny but is true. I like having company (even imagined company) when I write and I became determined at some point to make the whole writing process more interactive. I appreciate each and every reader, and I want to know what they think. In my mind, that’s an important part of learning, improving, and growing as an author (and person). Readers are smart, and I learn a whole lot from them. They also keep me on my toes. I work hard to make my books as accurate as possible, but if I make a mistake, the readers will let me know, which I appreciate. I normally don’t share any of my book until I feel it is almost ready for publication, but with Mistaken Identity, I decided to just let it rip. So I posted the first chapter on my site and solicited comments. The response was incredible, and there were many great suggestions. I did incorporate several of them, and readers really took the challenge seriously and worked hard on their suggestions. For example, a sentence I was proudest of in the draft of that first chapter—“a prison term is a childhood”—went down the tubes because so few readers understood it. While I liked the drama of equating prisons and childhood (referring to the fact that so many women inmates are mothers), I changed the sentence to read, "a prison term lasts a childhood." I like it less, because it lacks the equation of these two opposed ideas, but ultimately, what matters is to be understood. After two divorces, I am learning to listen....

For me, there can never be too much trial action in a legal novel, which is why I enjoy books like Mistaken Identity and The Vendetta Defense that carry the case from arraignment to verdict. But I realize others glaze over when a book enters the courtroom. Do you get a lot of pro and con arguments on this point from your readers, and what do you feel is the best balance of in-court and out-of-court action?

My biggest concern with writing a book is making sure it is fast-paced, and so I do worry about the amount of time spent in the courtroom, especially because legal proceedings can be so slow in reality. So I edit or usually only show a slice so that readers get a real-time sense but don’t have to sit through an entire proceeding (after all, they’re not billing for it...). And I rely greatly on my wonderful editor Carolyn Marino to let me know if I’m going on too long in the courtroom.

Of course, I’m writing about a law firm, so there are legal issues at the heart of every book, but I don’t force a courtroom scene just for the sake of having it. It needs to be appropriate to the book, and needs to maintain the pace of the book. As for my readers, I really only get positive notes about my courtroom scenes. Probably, people self-select for this; only people interested in courtroom stuff buy legal thrillers. I think what happens is that when people pick up one of my books—even if they've never heard of my books—they know from the flap copy and author bio that they’re in for some lawyer stuff, and they want to see me talk the talk and walk the walk.

Some compromise with reality is inevitable in a fictional trial (or a fictional anything), but at least lawyer novelists are harder for the lay reader to nitpick. Still, I wondered how Bennie Rosato could get away with what she does in her closing argument in Mistaken Identity, continuing her inflammatory accusations even after the judge tells her she must stop on pain of contempt. Are there elements in fictional trials that seem exaggerated but really aren’t, and where do you draw the line on “artistic license” in a fictional trial scene?

I believe in accuracy, and I think that people who enjoy legal thrillers learn about the legal system from my books. A lot of crazy things happen in courtrooms, and many times what may seem exaggerated isn’t far from the truth. In fact, in Courting Trouble, there is a naked man in court in the opening scene. As far-fetched as that may seem, several months later I read an article online from the BBC about a naked man in a courtroom during trial.

As for Bennie in Mistaken Identity, she did push to the limits, and with some judges she may not have gotten away with it. But in my practice, I saw that certain lawyers really did push the envelope, and they were given certain leeway by the bench. In Philadelphia, as in most cities, you tend to see the same judges over and over again, and we come to know each other and have certain expectations. Just like in real life, there are some judges who are stricter than others. I think that Bennie has been litigating for quite some time, and would know with which judges she could get away with it, and which she could not. And you would not believe the lengths that some of the best trial lawyers go to, especially in front of juries. It’s even cooler than fiction.

There’s a fascinating line on page two of your new book, Dead Ringer: “Only Americans tolerate law without justice.” What do you mean by that?

I thought very hard about that sentence, and of course, that’s Bennie speaking. But I agree with her (there’s a surprise). The American legal system is wonderful, and it does serve to protect our rights and our freedoms, in the main. But sometimes there is a price to pay for freedom and protection, and the price is often justice. The O.J. trial is a perfect example. In my opinion, a really poor prosecution enabled a guilty man to go free. The law was followed, but justice got lost in the process.