As a newly minted Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., Anna Curtis has already developed thick skin to deal with the brutality she encounters with her daily stack of domestic violence cases. Yet when Laprea Johnson walks into Anna’s life—battered by her boyfriend on the morning after Valentine’s Day—there’s something about this particular case that Anna can’t quite shake, something that reminds the prosecutor of her own troubled past.
At the trial, Laprea makes a last-minute reversal, lying on the witness stand to free her boy-friend. Shortly after he is freed, Anna is horrified to hear that Laprea’s body has been found in a trash heap. Hastily assigned to prosecute the murder case alongside intimidating chief homicide prosecutor Jack Bailey, Anna’s heart sinks when she learns that her own boyfriend, public defender Nick Wagner, is representing the accused.
Torn between bringing the killer to justice and saving her personal life, Anna makes a series of choices that jeopardizes her career, her relationships, and her very life as she uncovers the shocking truth behind the murder.
Weaving expert knowledge with deft storytelling, federal sex-crimes prosecutor and Harvard Law School graduate Allison Leotta takes readers on a thrilling ride through D.C.’s criminal justice system. From the back rooms of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the flirtations and machinations of Washington’s Ivy League lawyers to the struggles of its poorest citizens on the gritty streets of Anacostia, Law of Attraction is a gripping debut from an exciting new talent.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The courthouse coffee was terrible, but the morning after Valentine’s Day was no time for a domestic violence prosecutor to go uncaffeinated. Anna poured the inky brew into a Styrofoam cup, took a sip, and grimaced. Scalding and bitter—a fitting start to a day of sorting through last night’s crimes. At least she’d have help. Anna pulled out her cell phone and called her officemate.
“DV Papering,” Grace answered in crisp singsong.
“Hey, I’m in the cafeteria. Want some coffee?”
“That’d be fabulous.” Grace hushed her voice. “And grab a bunch of napkins. There’s a woman bleeding all over your chair.”
Grace had been a prosecutor for four months, but Anna was still new enough that the information jolted her. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“She’s okay. A lot of scrapes and bruises, and a very messy nosebleed. Nothing life-threatening. I can cover till you get here. And can you snag me a muffin? I’m starving.”
“Sure. Be right there.”
Marveling at Grace’s calm, Anna grabbed a muffin and got in line to pay. Three people stood in front of her: a tall guy in a dark suit, a man wearing a Redskins jersey over a blue collared shirt, and a buxom woman in fishnet stockings and a spandex miniskirt. Lawyer, Anna guessed of the first man. Then a policeman, hiding his uniform so courthouse visitors wouldn’t ask him questions. And a prostitute, just getting off work, here to see her probation officer. The one thing Anna liked about the courthouse’s grim basement cafeteria was its democracy. The cop might arrest the prostitute later tonight, and the lawyer might skewer the cop during cross-examination, but everyone had to wait in the same line to get their corned-beef hash.
After paying, Anna hurried to the napkin dispenser, but the tall lawyer who’d been ahead of her took the last ones.
She looked at him in dismay. “Actually, I really need those,” she said, nodding at the napkins in his hand.
Something about the man’s dark hair and lanky figure seemed familiar, but out of place. His tailored suit and buttery leather briefcase were common in the federal court next door, but marked him as several income brackets above the D.C. Superior Court crowd. He probably worked for some big Washington law firm, in one of the high-paying jobs she’d turned down to work for the government.
The man glanced down at her and suddenly grinned. “Anna Curtis! Hey! It’s been a while.”
“Hi, um . . .” She shook her head.
“Nick Wagner. Harvard Law School. I had a ridiculous beard? And hair down to here.” He tapped his shoulder and blushed slightly. “Your team beat mine in the final round of Ames Moot Court. Kicked our asses, in fact.”
“Nick! You used to play guitar in the Hark during Friday happy hour.”
“You got it.” His smile widened. “I guess you made more of an impression on me than I made on you.”
“Sorry—I’m just in a rush, and focused on those napkins.”
Nick placed them ceremoniously in her palm. “Some kind of food spill emergency?”
“Thank you. Bloody nose. Abuse victim in the Papering Room. So—I’ve got to go.” Anna began to walk out of the cafeteria, looking over her shoulder with regret. “I’m sorry I can’t really talk now.”
Nick hurried along with her through the labyrinth of the courthouse basement. “So, you’re a prosecutor—and you pulled papering duty on the day after Valentine’s Day? What’d you do, run over the U.S. Attorney’s dog?”
She had to laugh. Papering was the most despised assignment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a task only the greenest prosecutors could be compelled to do. Anna would turn arrests from the last twenty-four hours into criminal case files: typing information into a computer, two-hole-punching police paperwork, condensing lifetimes of violence into slim manila folders. The tedium was broken only when a victim came to tell her sad story in person. And Valentine’s Day was notoriously the worst time for domestic violence. People were two-timing each other, or paying too much attention to their baby’s mother and not enough to their wife, or just plain forgetting a card. It was surprising how often a lovers’ quarrel turned into a trip to lockup.
“I just started in January,” Anna explained, “so I’m still in the hazing period.”
“Well, we should catch up sometime.”
“Sure,” she said as they rounded a corner. A crowd of police officers lined the hallway outside the Papering Room. She’d never seen so many blue uniforms in one place before. It was going to be a long day.
“How about dinner tonight?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know.” Anna glanced sideways at him without slowing her pace. Despite the poor timing, it was a tempting offer. She’d been feeling homesick and disconnected in her new city. It’d be nice to talk with a law school acquaintance. She stopped in the doorway to the Papering Room and handed him her business card. “Call me. Let’s see how things look later.”
He smiled at her: a warm, radiant smile. Despite herself, she felt a natural pull toward him. This might not turn out to be such a bad day-after-Valentine’s Day after all.
That thought died as she walked into the Papering Room.
A tiny woman sat at one of the two sagging desks, flanked by Grace and a uniformed policeman. Blood had soaked the woman’s white button-down shirt and spattered the gray linoleum at her feet. A few dark red drops flecked the bottom of the mint green cinder block walls. Her beautiful brown face was marred by two black eyes so swollen they were nearly shut. Raw red abrasions covered her left cheek in a messy cross-hatch pattern. She held a piece of bloodstained office paper to her nose and rocked herself back and forth, moaning softly.
Although Anna had read a lot of police reports describing gruesome injuries lately, she hadn’t seen a woman this badly scraped up since her childhood. A wave of memories, guilt, and anger stunned her into a momentary paralysis. But today was her day to pick up cases, so this victim was her responsibility. Clenching her teeth, she strode over to the woman and held out a couple of napkins. “Here,” she said gently. “Try these.”
The woman swapped them for the paper at her nose.
“My name is Anna Curtis. I’m an AUSA, an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I’ll be handling your case.”
“Laprea Johnson,” the woman said. Her voice was so soft it was barely audible.
Suddenly Laprea gasped. The pain on her face transformed into a puckered mask of rage. At first, Anna wondered what she’d said to infuriate the woman.
But she was glaring past Anna—at Nick, who stood frozen in the doorway. His face had turned an ashy white. The wounded woman spat her words at him.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
© 2010 Allison Leotta
What People are Saying About This
A beautifully written and suspenseful debut, offering not only an inside look at crime and the courts in DC, but an exploration of the family dynamics that affect so much of who we are and what we do.
"With this riveting debut legal thriller, Leotta, a federal sex crimes prosecutor in Washington, DC, joins the big leagues with pros like Lisa Scottoline and Linda Fairstein." -Library Journal Starred Review
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Law of Attraction includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allison Leotta.The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. There are a series of plot twists and shocking discoveries throughout Law of Attraction. Which of these developments surprised you the most?
2. Nick’s decision to continue to defend D’marco after Laprea’s murder is one of the main reasons Anna breaks off their relationship. Unlike Anna, Nick asserts that representing D’marco isn’t morally compromising, because everyone deserves a fair trial and representation regardless of their guilt. Whose philosophy do you most agree with? Did your opinion change as the story unfolded? Explain.
3. While driving through Anacostia from downtown Washington D.C., Anna notes that “as a matter of geography, the two neighborhoods were a few miles apart. As a matter of class, race and economics, they were different worlds.” (p. 100) Of class, race, and economics, which do you think is of the greatest consequence to the characters in Law of Attraction? Explain your choice.
4. One of Anna’s primary motivations for her work stems from the domestic violence she witnessed as a child and her first-hand experience with the “cycle of violence.” (p. 187) Do you think Anna’s past positively or negatively affects her ability to work the D’marco case? Why? Would you say it’s an advantage or a disadvantage?
5. How does the trauma from Anna’s childhood inform her relationships? What does Jody’s scar symbolize for Anna?
6. In over 80% of domestic violence cases, the victim soon gets back together with the abuser and wants to drop all charges. If a victim doesn’t want to pursue a case, do you think the prosecution should still seek a conviction? Why or why not? Is it overly paternalistic for the government to protect a victim who doesn’t want to be protected? How does Anna’s family history influence her opinion about this kind of situation?
7. From Nick to Jack, most characters in Law of Attraction cannot be taken at face value, and they break any stereotypes or initial impressions the reader may make. Which character did you find most surprising or interesting?
8. One of Anna’s most controversial actions in Law of Attraction is her decision not to disclose the fact that she had a romantic relationship with the opposing counsel in a murder trial. Do you think what Anna did was unethical? Did her punishment seem justified?
9. Despite its imperfections, do you think the legal system depicted in Law of Attraction was ultimately effective? Do you think the legal system is better or worse in real life?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Find out how your book group can help victims of domestic abuse in your own community with activities such as volunteering your time at a local shelter.
2. Bring law and order to your book group! Have a court-themed meeting to discuss the book, or have a mock-trial discussion. Get creative!
A CONVERSATION WITH ALLISON LEOTTA
Law of Attraction is your debut novel and quite a departure from your work as a federal prosecutor. What prompted you to start writing fiction?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I probably started writing because of my work—to help me process the tragedies and heroism that I see prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence.
On any given day I might see the very worst—and sometimes the very best—of human nature. Women kidnapped and raped by strangers. Victims sexually assaulted by family members, by jealous ex-lovers, even by church deacons. I’ve prosecuted assaults committed with guns, knives, bedposts, boiling oil, and, once, a hamster cage.
But I’ve also witnessed true heroism. An eleven-year-old boy who testified how he fought off the man who was stabbing his mother, and saved her life. Mothers willing to move mountains to heal their daughters. And I’ve worked with prosecutors who fought for justice even when their own lives, and the lives of their children, were threatened by the criminals they prosecuted.
It isn’t the type of job you leave at the office. Every prosecutor I know has some kind of outlet – running marathons, shoe shopping, Sudoku—whatever works. Me, I’ve always been a bookworm. Writing turned out to be a natural way for me to process this very intense world that I’m part of. By rolling bits and pieces of these real stories into a fictional narrative, I hope that the reader will be moved in the same way I have.
What was your motivation behind creating a story that so closely mirrors your own profession? Are there any elements in the story that were inspired by specific people or events you’ve encountered throughout your career as a federal prosecutor? Does the criminal justice system portrayed in the novel depart in any way from the way it functions in real life?
They say write what you know, right? That was great advice for me, because the world I know is full of incredible stories, hot-button issues, and a rich cast of characters. I didn’t have to look far for ideas. In fact, I had to tone down reality a bit. Some things that happen in D.C. Superior Court are so astonishing, they would seem implausible if written as fiction.
Law of Attraction isn’t based on any single case I’ve had or any particular people I know, but it does incorporate some of the most interesting details from cases and people I’ve worked with. I tried to be as accurate as possible in describing how D.C.’s criminal justice system works. I think people who work in that system will read these details and think, Oh yeah, been there, seen that. But the story itself is fiction.
Like you, your protagonist, Anna, is a prosecutor working in D.C. Besides her profession, does Anna share any other characteristics or personality traits of yours?
My father will be very happy that you asked that question! Poor Dad was so proud when I wrote a book—and then horrified that people would think the father character is him. So, let me take this opportunity to say that Anna isn’t me and her parents are not my parents.
Superficially, Anna and I have a similar resume. We both come from Detroit, were the product of Michigan public schools, and went to Harvard Law School. I became a prosecutor to try to make my community safer and to use my law degree to fight for justice, and Anna shares those motivations.
But Anna’s past is much darker than mine. I had a happy childhood; Anna’s was tinged with violence and fear. I was drawn to prosecuting because I admire my father, who was a federal prosecutor. Anna was drawn to the job in response to her father’s violence. I’m very by-the-book in my work, while Anna is more likely to be swayed by her emotions and passions—which get her into much more trouble than I’ve ever been in!
Our after-work lives are quite different, too. Anna is a single girl exploring romantic prospects in the big city, and she gets to hang out at local hot spots, drinking wine and bantering with other bright young things. I’m married (to another prosecutor), live in the ‘burbs, and have two beautiful, crazy little boys—so a night on the town for me usually involves happy meals, matchbox cars, and handfuls of Cheerios.
Law of Attraction is part crime thriller and part romance story. Did you find it challenging to weave the two storylines together?
The most challenging part of the love story, I think, will be when I show up at the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the day after Law of Attraction is published. I suspect there’ll be a lot of good-natured ribbing after my colleagues read the steamy sex scenes. I might need to wear a nun’s habit for a while.
Seriously, I was surprised to discover that writing the romance was one of my favorite parts of creating the book. The legal scenes are all about my work, so I was able to bring realistic details to them. But the love story was just plain fun.
I also found that, although I had carefully plotted out the murder mystery, the romance blossomed organically, almost of its own will. For the homicide, I knew from the start who did it, how, where, when and why. But I hadn’t planned on Anna falling in love with Jack. She and I both fell for him as we got to know him: slowly and unconsciously at first, finally realizing that he was “the one” shortly after Anna lost him.
Your characters in Law of Attraction are all complex and three-dimensional individuals, with distinct personality traits and flaws. Who was your favorite character to create, and which character do you like the most?
This is kind of strange for me to say, but my favorite characters to write were D’marco and Ray-Ray. In real life, of course, I would much prefer to hang out with the tough-but-tender, single-father homicide chief. As an author, however, it was great fun creating my minor-league thugs.
I’ve prosecuted lots of men like D’marco and Ray-Ray, but I rarely get to know them. I’m not allowed to speak to defendants without their attorneys present, and defense attorneys seldom allow their clients to say anything to prosecutors. So, for me and my prosecutor colleagues, a man like D’marco or Ray-Ray who abuses his wife, sells drugs, or shoplifts is simply “the defendant”—a person defined solely by the crime he committed. Writing about these guys, however, I had to explore them more fully—understanding not just that D’marco is an abusive guy with a serious anger-management problem, but delving into how he got that way, how he lives his everyday life, and what really sets him off. With their criminal proclivities, jailhouse schemes, and prison break, D’marco and Ray-Ray were also great catalysts for the action scenes.
If you could choose any insight or lesson for your readers to take away from the story, what would it be?
Most of all, I hope readers are entertained by the story. But, if they learn a few things about the criminal justice system in the process, that would be wonderful.
First, obviously, is the fact that domestic violence is a real problem in our society— but prosecuting the men (and occasionally women) who abuse their partners cannot, alone, solve the problem. Time and again, I’ve seen smart, savvy women stand by the men who abuse them, when the whole world is crying “leave him.” And the children raised in these families seem drawn to the same types of relationships when they grow up. We have to understand, and address, the reasons why women stay with the men who hurt them if we want to protect these women from their abusers.
On a deeper level, each of the main characters in this book is in danger of repeating self-destructive patterns they learned in childhood. By exploring the results of the decisions the characters make, I tried to illuminate how one can break out of these cycles.
Finally, the book explores the ethical dilemmas that prosecutors and defense attorneys face every day. How does a prosecutor balance the need to bring criminals to justice with respecting the wishes of victims who may not want to press charges? Why might a defense attorney believe that, by helping guilty criminals fight the charges against them, the defense attorney has also fought for justice? The characters in this book struggle with these and related issues, each coming to their own terms with the ethical challenges presented by their roles.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in writing but isn’t sure how to begin?
Be persistent and patient. A lot of would-be writers have the ideas and the talent, but they just don’t do it; they’re afraid of rejection, or they keep putting off their dream of writing, or they start and when they hit a stumbling block, they quit. Don’t stress too much about whether the first draft is perfect, because editing is a large part of writing. Just keeping writing, and as you tell your story you can see what works and then delete what doesn’t. My finished novel is about 300 pages, but I also have 700 pages in a document called “False Starts”—vast swaths of text I cut because they were unwieldy, uninteresting, or just plain bad. They never made it into print, but those 700 pages were essential for me to learn how to write fiction.
And don’t be discouraged if the writing process isn’t quick. When I decided to write a book, I took a week off of work and went to a cabin in the country with my husband. I figured that I’d be about half done with my novel by the end of the week. I finally finished Law of Attraction two years later.
What’s next for Anna Curtis and you?
I just finished dreaming up my next Anna Curtis story and, boy, does she have her work cut out for her! She’s a more seasoned prosecutor now, and has moved up in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to focus on the most difficult and dangerous—felony sex crimes. Her next case involves an explosive political sex scandal. Jack will be back, of course, and he and Anna will face some serious challenges to their romance. I’m not sure if their relationship will survive the coming storm, so stay tuned. There will be some interesting new characters as well. I’m excited to see how it all shakes out!