by Cynthia Chow
& Lynne Raimondo
This week we have a review of Dante’s Wood, a legal thrilled by Lynne Raimondo, a guest post by Lynne entitled
On Writing the (Almost) Legal Thriller, and a chance to win a copy of the book–details at the end of this post.
Dante’s Wood: A Mark Angelotti Novel By Lynne Raimondo
Review by Cynthia Chow
For the last thirteen months, clinical psychiatrist Mark Angelotti has been losing his vision. A devastating genetic disorder began to rob him of his sight at the age of forty-six, and despite what the inspirational back–to-school specials and true life television movies would have one believe, suddenly becoming disabled has not made Mark noble, admirable, or humble. To the contrary, Mark is still arrogant and abrasive and his sarcastic sense of humor has alienated many of his fellow doctors at the Chicago teaching hospital where he has only recently been unwillingly reinstated. His first case is not the softball Mark hoped for, as it involves the mentally disabled son of a prominent doctor and his wife, whose family has a hospital wing attached to their name. Judith Dickerson fears that her son Charlie is being sexually abused by one of his caretakers at the New Horizons Center, but after one meeting with the bickering Dickersons and evaluating Judith’s overbearing protectiveness over the eighteen year-old, Mark evaluates him as simply being an innocent with a six-year old’s intelligence, who is confused about his emerging sexuality.
When Mark next hears about Charlie the news is shocking; he has been arrested for the murder of Shannon Sparrow, the New Horizons employee Judith accused of molestation. When the defense calls Mark to testify on Charlie’s behalf Mark’s somewhat unorthodox recommendations humiliate him both in the courtroom and the media, and worse, it damages Charlie’s case and has Nate Dickerson demanding that Mark lose his license to practice.
In order to save his reputation and his career, Mark begins an investigation to prove Charlie’s innocence and that his own evaluation of the young man was correct. As he looks further into New Horizons, Mark meets its surprising director Alice Lowe, who is similarly visually impaired but who has taken a different path at coping with the loss. Mark also discovers that Shannon was an entirely unlikable and self-centered woman whose motives for working at the center were less than charitable.
This debut novel by former trial lawyer Lynne Raimondo is an absolute delight to read. Mark Angelotti is developed into a completely flawed character who struggles to redeem himself for his callousness that contributed to a horrific tragedy that shattered his marriage, cost him his son, and separated him from a second son he has never seen since birth. Yet despite the dark theme at its heart, the novel is lightened by Mark’s sarcastic voice, black humor, and ultimate likability. The exploration of how Mark copes with his new blindness is fascinating as he learns Braille and carries a “Blindberry” personal device that prints out his notes. The author also explores both sides of advocacy for the disabled, from those who head a movement that demands the world change for them against the need for the afflicted to adjust to the “abled” world. Mark’s own reluctance to accept his disability, how blindness affects his memory and judgment, and the secret that he believes may have caused the disease prove to be similarly compelling.
While comparisons will inevitably be drawn to the writings of Jonathan Kellerman, the sardonic tone and exasperating but entertaining characters are much more akin to the more humorous novels by David Rosenfelt. The writing is crafted beautifully, and although certain plot reveals may be predictable there is a final twist that will, to abuse a pun, blindside the reader. This novel will appeal to fans of both psychological and legal thrillers, and the dry wit and wryness of the narrator alleviates what could have been a very dark novel. This novel comes with the highest of recommendations and can’t be praised enough.
On Writing the (Almost) Legal Thriller
By Lynne Raimondo
When I set out to write my debut novel, Dante’s Wood, I always knew it would involve elements of a legal thriller. After all, I had a twenty-five year career as a lawyer, had taught trial advocacy on the side, and had been hooked on the genre ever since I had the good fortune to stumble across Robert Travers’ Anatomy of a Murder in my twenties. (If you’ve only seen the movie, it’s a must read.) But I deliberately steered away from making my protagonist another lawyer. A question I’m asked frequently is why?
There are several answers. For one thing, I didn’t trust my ability to avoid clichés. There are so many stellar legal thrillers in print it seemed impossible to come up with something fresh and new. For another, I was wary of putting too much of myself into my main character. I wanted to write a mystery, not a thinly-veiled memoir, and my years as a civil litigator didn’t make for much scintillating reading anyway.
Then, just as I was getting down to writing, I was subpoenaed to testify in a federal case. Although I’d prepared others to testify many times, it was my first time on the witness stand, and it opened my eyes to an entirely different side of courtroom dynamics. The experience led to the idea of writing a legal thriller from the perspective of an expert witness, a newcomer to the system who undergoes a baptism of fire when he finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes case.
From there, it was an easy leap to making my hero a psychiatrist. I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of law and psychiatry, and since I was hoping to write a series, I thought it would be a great launching point for exploring some of the issues – like false confessions – that are among the most controversial in our legal system today.
The character I settled on, Mark Angelotti, is drawn into a criminal case when his teenage patient, Charlie Dickerson, is accused of murdering a teacher under circumstances that call into question Mark’s medical judgment. At first, Mark struggles to make sense of the nightmare into which he and Charlie have been thrust, and it’s only after he takes a beating on the stand that he decides to take matters into his own hands. In that sense, Mark functions very much like the amateur sleuth in a traditional ‘whodunit.’ His outsider status affords him insights that the pros have missed, and also leads them to underestimate him, a plot device that has engaged readers since Agatha Christie introduced Miss Marple.
In creating Mark, I sought to endow him with qualities with proven appeal to fans of crime fiction. Professionally Mark is a maverick, a risk-taker whose has earned the respect of his colleagues, if not always their admiration. Wisecracking and cynical, Mark nonetheless has a compassionate streak that binds him to Charlie. But Mark is no Spenser or Harry Bosch. Short and slight of build, he would rather own a custom bicycle than a sports car, and his culinary skills are limited to turning on his microwave. He also has a physical disability – legal blindness – that complicates his fact-finding and forces him to rely on skills other than athletic prowess to solve the crime.
Like many of the fictional detectives I love best, Mark also comes with emotional baggage. Early on readers learn that Mark is new to his job at a Chicago teaching hospital, where he first discovered the symptoms of the genetic disease that would shortly rob him of his sight. Mark’s disease, Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, is an actual one that afflicts approximately one in ten thousand people with a specific DNA marker. The triggering event — the sudden loss of sight in one eye followed somewhat later in the other — is not well understood and closely mimics hysterical blindness. This murky etiology gives Mark secret hope that his condition is temporary, brought about by the guilt he feels over a blameworthy episode in his past.
DNA also plays a role in the plot when Mark is called to give his opinion that Charlie’s confession was the result of improper psychological persuasion. The testimony goes well until Mark is cross-examined and the prosecutor reveals shocking new evidence – paternity tests seeming to prove that Charlie was the father of the victim’s unborn child. But DNA evidence isn’t always what it seems, and its capacity to lead us to false conclusions – both in Mark’s case and Charlie’s – is one of Dante’s Wood’s central themes.
Look for Mark’s adventures to continue in the next installment in the series, currently slated for publication in May 2014.
To enter to win a copy of Dante’s Wood, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “Dante”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen May 4, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.