Speak of the Devil
- Allison Leotta
- Simon & Schuster
- 282 pp.
- Reviewed by Mara T. Adams
- October 7, 2013
Former prosecutor turns her real-life experiences into a tense, fast-moving crime thriller.
After 12 years as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C., Allison Leotta left active practice to devote herself to writing, and a good thing, too — for us at least. Her third and latest novel, Speak of the Devil, again features Anna Curtis as a smart, hardworking federal prosecutor whose expertise lies in domestic violence and sex crimes.
As the novel opens, Anna has decided to marry her on-again, off-again boyfriend, chief homicide prosecutor Jack Bailey. But even as they are celebrating at the lovely Tabard Inn, a horrific crime is taking place in another part of Washington. A trio of raincoat-wearing, machete-wielding men descends on a brothel, decapitating its doorman and wounding the proprietor. As they start to attack the terrified young woman at work there, a fourth man joins them:
He was dressed like the others, in
a trench coat and jeans, but Tierra understood that he was not human. His skin
was entirely covered with dark hieroglyphs. His nose was just two nostrils
sunken into his face. He had long black hair — and two fleshy horns protruding
from his forehead.
He was the Devil.
After viciously raping the girl, Diablo and his partners — Gato, Psycho and Bufón — turn to leave, walking straight into Detective Hector Ramos at the head of a raiding party. Ramos kills Bufón and wounds Psycho, but Gato and Diablo get away.
What follows is a taut and fast-paced legal thriller/police procedural that centers on the inner workings of America’s most dangerous gang: Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. According to the author’s note, MS-13 has mushroomed from a small band of L.A. thugs to an international organization with an estimated 50,000 members and cliques in almost every major American city. In the last decade, MS-13 has become so violent, powerful and brutally misogynistic that the FBI created a task force solely to fight the gang.
While Anna’s personal life blossoms, her professional life puts her in grave danger as she is “greenlighted” by the gang: marked for death for having the audacity to prosecute Psycho. Anna’s romance with Jack is central to her life, and he is almost too good to be true. Yet Leotta does not allow Anna to become the clichéd bride-to-be: she remains focused, dedicated, and determined to prevail over the evil that faces her, come what may. Anna’s investigation leads her to reopen a 4-year-old case involving the death of her fiancé’s first wife, police officer Nina Flores, who was also greenlighted for attempting to shut down the gang’s drug operation. When Anna uncovers the truth, it threatens to overwhelm both herself and her newfound happiness.
Much of the novel is drawn from Leotta’s own experience prosecuting MS-13 cases: Gang members pimping out 14-year-old girls at construction sites, a police raid on a brothel that coincided with an MS invasion of the same brothel, and a teenage girl murdered by her MS lover when she tried to leave the gang. Leotta deftly leads us through a bewildering amount of information about MS-13, a large and varied cast of characters, and the intricacies of mounting a successful prosecution in the face of witness intimidation and a web of secrets and lies. Her crisp writing and believable dialogue propel the story — and the reader — to its explosive climax. She respects her law enforcement characters, and her admiration for the real-life models on whom she bases them is obvious.
In Anna Curtis, we have a protagonist both tough and vulnerable. If courage is being afraid but going ahead anyway, then she is also courageous. Her fear for her little family is palpable, yet she carries on, knowing that to falter would be to lose herself. She’s a heroine we can root for.
Speak of the Devil is not your garden-variety escapist fiction. It’s intelligent, probing and clear-eyed about the evil among us and how easily that evil can permeate a society when people are afraid to confront it. Part morality tale, part riveting drama, Speak of the Devil is very, very good.
Mara T. Adams is a lifelong bibliophile, editor, writer and generally hard-to-please critic. She lives on Cape Cod.