I love discovering new authors. When I do, I usually try to start at the beginning of their work. I didn’t in this case, this book being a stand-alone novel of Lisa Scottoline’s that was particularly recommended to me since I enjoy reading Nelson DeMille. At the same time, I read reviews that say this is not her best work. After reading it, I have to say I hope that is the case.
Cate Fante has just been appointed to a lifetime position as a Federal Court Judge in Philadelphia. She’s younger than the rest of the court and operates a little differently than they do on the bench. Off the bench, she’s also got a huge secret. For some reason, she feels the need to go to the most working-class bar she can find and pick up whoever looks like the biggest low-life there and sleeps with him. No one knows this side of her, including her best friend who is in the midst of a divorce with a young son on the autism spectrum. Cate is devoted to them, yet won’t even talk to Gina about her self-destructive behavior.
Cate’s first case in open court is a civil suit between the producer of a highly-successful television show and the man who claims he stole his idea. Cate is backed into a corner with the legalities of the case and must rule in favor of the producer when everyone knows that he did steal the idea. However, Cate gives him and his lawyer a severe tongue-lashing before entering her ruling. That night, the producer is murdered outside of a restaurant and all the evidence points to the man who sued him. Eventually, he is found dead in his car of an apparent suicide.
It would seem to be an open-and-shut case at this point. However, there’s a bit more going on than Cate realizes. While she’s wracked with guilt about what happened, it becomes apparent that her secret is catching up to her. The man she picked up the night of the ruling (but didn’t end up sleeping with) is found dead. It seems to be accidental, but the detective investigating it figures out Cate was there. He also happens to be the former partner of the plaintiff in the case which Cate just ruled against.
Everything is coming to a head for Cate, who doesn’t want to resign from her position, yet is concerned for the lives this will affect, particularly Gina and her son.
I really wanted to like this book. The mystery part of it is excellent as it really doesn’t reveal itself to be a mystery until almost 2/3 of the way through. It seems at first that what I’m reading is the story of a train wreck; we are watching Cate’s life fall apart like a slow-motion accident. Only, it’s not an accident. It seems unrealistic that a woman in her 30’s who’s been impressive enough to get an appointment to a Federal Bench would also be smart enough to know that her clandestine behavior is going to eventually be discovered and be trouble for her. This is a woman who had the money and resources for therapy and didn’t take advantage of it, even though she knows there’s something wrong there.
At one point, Cate does state that what’s happening wouldn’t be as big of a deal if she was a man. I thought this was an opportunity missed. Of course, this was published in 2009, well before the “me too” movement exploded. Professional women still have different standards than men do, but it’s gotten a lot better.
Cate wasn’t the only character I found pretty unsympathetic. The entire story is filled with characters that aren’t necessarily that deep. Gina is a tragic character, but they’re really to play on the reader’s heartstrings and make Cate more sympathetic by her devotion to her best friend and her son. Russo, the police officer who blames Cate for his friend’s suicide, goes pretty insane for someone who supposedly wasn’t counting on the money from the lawsuit for anything. He’s upset by the death of his friend, but even the man’s widow, who’s carrying his child, doesn’t have the anger Russo does.
When Dirty Blonde moved the setting to Centralia, PA for a bit it was one of the best parts of the book. Scottoline gives a great history of the town. I’d heard about it numerous times over the years, but this is the most depth I’ve read about the effect the natural disaster of a slow-burning coal fire underground had on the residents of that city. I never thought about people who lived there still when it was first burning and how it affected their health. It was really interesting the way the area was described in 2009, almost 50 years after the fire first started.
However, the pluses can’t save the story from the minuses. Since the author has been recommended to me, I’ll try a few more of her novels. If this were my only sample, I would have probably given up. There’s a lot to like here, but the characters really ruin the great story and great mystery.