Former trial lawyer Lisa Scottoline's thrillers always involve issues close to her life.
So her new thriller, "Killer Smile" emerges from the shock she felt when she learned of her family's deepest shame: her Italian-American immigrant grandparents were forced to register as "enemy aliens" in World War II.
"When you find that out about a year-and-a-half ago, as a novelist and crime fiction writer you say, there must be a story in here," Scottoline tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith and so she decided to write a modern-day story.
During World War II, in addition to the internment of Japanese-Americans, 10,000 Italian-born Americans were also evacuated from their homes and placed in internment camps. Some 600,000 more, like Scottoline's grandparents, Giuseppe and Mary Scottoline, were forced to register with the government as "enemy aliens," losing the civil rights and privileges they so desperately sought in America.
These men and women had resided in the United States for many years, raised families, and were finally enjoying their lives. With one signature, however, their basic rights were taken away.
Scottoline notes, "On the West Coast, there were people confined to exclusionary zones. Joe diMaggio's father was not permitted to go to his own son's restaurant. On the East Coast, Philadelphia in particular, where I'm from, my grandparents, their house was searched, their flashlights and radios taken on the mistaken belief they would be used to signal enemy warships. It's an interesting lesson. History is on a loop so it has obvious resonance for today."
Interestingly, Scottoline's father was at the same time serving in the U.S. military. She says, "It's very typical that the sons of these people who were registered as enemy aliens at the same time of course, their sons were fighting in the war for the U.S."
So in her new novel Scottoline tells the story of Mary DiNunzio, a young woman lawyer, who is working pro bono to obtain reparations for the estate of Amadeo Brandolini, an Italian-American internee at Fort Missoula, Mont.
Scottoline notes, "What fascinates me and interests me in all of the books I write is what is the confluence of justice, law and family? How is it that in times of armed conflict, like now, when we are all terrified, how does that affect our civil liberties? How does that affect our families? Obviously, in an internment, a family member is taken away. People were taken away in the night. My grandparents, their house was searched in the night. That has enormous impact. These registration cards were only given to me two years ago because my grandparents kept them secret and were ashamed."
This was a dark family secret, but in retrospect there is nothing to be ashamed of. She says, "I said this of course is wonderful for me because I can take what they were most ashamed of and make it public. And say, 'Look, there is no reason for you to be ashamed. You did nothing wrong.' And don't be afraid of your government. And that's what's interesting to me about any kind of thriller. You want to write an entertaining story that turns pages, but you really want to think about the larger issues in what we're living with today."
Asked if she feels the government did the right thing by interning, Scottoline says, "I don't judge. I really don't. Certainly the Supreme Court decided they did the right thing. I don't judge us. We're human beings. Thank God for that."
Read an excerpt from Chapter One:
"Rosato & Associates," Mary DiNunzio said into the receiver, then kicked herself for answering the phone. The caller was Premenstrual Tom, a man who wanted to sue the Philadelphia Police Department, the United States Congress, and a local cantaloupe. He'd been calling the office at all hours, and Mary felt sorry for him. He was obviously off his meds and had reached one of the few lawyers in the city who wouldn't sue fruit.
"This is Mr. Thomas Cott!" he shouted. "Who's this?"
"I'm Mary DiNunzio. We spoke yesterday -- "
"Get me Ms. Benedetta Rosato!"
"Ms. Rosato is gone for the day, sir." Mary checked her watch. 10:16 P.M. Everyone had gone home hours ago, and until now, the offices had been blessedly quiet. "The office is closed."
"Then what are you doing there, Ms. Mary DiNunzio?"
Good question, Mr. Thomas Cott. Mary was working late again, reading until her brown eyes turned red and her contacts dried to the crispness of breakfast cereal. Documents blanketed the conference table like a legal snowstorm, and her compact figure had been curled into the swivel chair for so long she felt like a meatball. "Mr. Cott, I'll take a message and tell Bennie -- "
"I refuse to leave any more messages! Get Ms. Benedetta Rosato on the line! I demand to know why she won't represent me! She specializes in constitutional rights, it says so on the computer!"
"In the library! The website, your website! It says it right there! That's false advertising! What about my constitutional rights? They don't matter? I don't matter?"
"Mr. Cott, no lawyer can take every case," Mary answered, then hesitated. Bennie had told the associates not to engage Premenstrual Tom, but if she could explain it to him, maybe he'd stop calling. "I think Bennie told you she didn't think your case could prevail in court. She's practiced constitutional law for a long time and has excellent judgment, so -- "
"All those judges are in on it! All of them are crooked, every single one of them! City Hall is a pit of conspiracy and corruption! They're all in the mayor's pocket!"
"Mr. Cott, the judges in City Hall aren't crooked, and your case would be in federal court anyway -- "
"You're not fooling me, either of you! Put Ms. Benedetta Rosato on the telephone right now! I know she's there! She must be, she's not at home!"
Mary blinked. "How do you know she's -- "
"I went to her house! I knocked on her door, I waited for her to answer! The windows were dark!"
Mary stiffened. "How did you get her address?"
"It's in the phone book, I looked it up! What do you think I am, incapable? I may not have a fancy law degree, but I am not incapable, MS. MARY DiNUNZIO!"
Mary suddenly stopped feeling sorry for him. He was shouting louder now, almost screaming.
"I SAID, get MS. BENEDETTA ROSATO on this telephone RIGHT NOW! I KNOW she's right there with you!"
"Mr. Cott, if you'll just -- "
"DON'T LIE TO ME! Don't you DARE LIE TO ME!"
"Mr. Cott, I'm not -- "
"I'll come down there, you LYING WHORE! I'll come down there and SHOOT -- "
Mary hung up, shaken. The conference room fell abruptly silent. The air felt charged. It took her a moment to process what had just happened. Okay, Premenstrual Tom had morphed into Psychotic Tom, and it wasn't funny anymore. Bennie was at an ACLU dinner, but it would be ending soon. She could be going home. Mary had to warn her. She reached for the phone to call the boss's cell.
Rring, rrriiinng! The phone rang underneath Mary's hand, jarring her. Rrrriiinng! She gritted her teeth and let it ring twice more so voicemail would pick up. She should never have engaged Premenstrual Tom. When would she learn? Her goodgirl reflexes -- Help Out, Be Nice, Tell the Truth -- sucked in the practice of law.
Mary pushed the button for her direct phone line and called Bennie, but there was no answer. She left a detailed message, then hung up, uneasy. She'd call her back in five minutes to make sure the boss had gotten the message.
Mary eased back in her swivel chair, wishing suddenly that she weren't alone in the office. She eyed the doorway to the conference room, surprised to find the threshold dark. Who turned out the lights in the reception area? Maybe the cleaning people, when they'd left.
I'll come down there and shoot
Mary eyed the phone, daring it to ring again. She didn't leave it off the hook because the drill was to record threatening messages for evidence, in case the office had to go for a restraining order, like with Premenstrual Fred. Mary wondered fleetingly if she could find a career that didn't attract garden variety homicidal rage or bad television commercials.
She told herself to get over it. Premenstrual Tom had been blowing off steam, and there was a security desk in the lobby of the building. The guard wouldn't let anybody upstairs without calling her first, especially after business hours, and nowadays you couldn't get past the desk without a driver's license and a mortgage note.
She got back to work, tucking a dark blonde tendril into its loose French twist, and picking up the document she'd been reading. It was a letter dated December 17, 1941, from the provost marshal general's office, a federal agency that no longer existed. Its type was grainy because it was a Xerox copy of a photocopy of a carbon copy, and on another night, Mary would have gotten a charge out of its vintage. Everybody in the office called her case the History Channel, but she loved the History Channel. Mary loved mostly everything on cable except The Actor's Studio, which she wouldn't watch at gunpoint. But she didn't want to think about gunpoint right now ...
The foregoing is excerpted from "Killer Smile" by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022