'The Female Grisham,' a Michigan native, publishes second legal thriller

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

The “D.C. Madam” scandal served as a jumping off point for Farmington Hills native Allison Leotta’s latest legal thriller Discretion (Touchstone $25), set for a July 3 release.

“As a prosecutor, I handled a lot of cases where the victims were prostitutes,” explained Leotta, a former sex crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. “I saw on a firsthand basis how dangerous their lives were, especially some college girl getting into the business thinking it’s a quick, easy way to make money, but that’s really far from the truth. I wanted to paint that picture realistically.

“What is it really like? What are the dangers? What are the unsavory things that have to happen? I didn’t want to glamorize it at all. I hope I hit that chord in Discretion.”

The “D.C. Madam” scandal came to light in 2006, centering on Deborah Jane Palfrey, who owned and operated the Washington, D.C.-based escort agency Pamela Martin and Associates. Her escorts, many of whom had recently graduated from college or had professional 9-to-5 day jobs, charged as much as $300/hour. Palfrey made more than $2 million in a 13-year period. This case received plenty of media attention, including from ABC’s 20/20 news magazine.

On April 15, 2008, Palfrey was convicted of racketeering, money laundering, and using the mail for illegal purposes. Rather than face 55 years in prison, Palfrey committed suicide by hanging herself. Police found handwritten suicide notes. The autopsy report concluded Palfrey’s death was a suicide, contrary to conspiracy theories appearing on the Internet.

“I was fascinated by the case,” said Leotta. “I was interested in the lives of the women who decided to become escorts, what it was like for them at the time, what the decision was like, and how it has affected their lives going forward – two years after they graduated from college and 20 years after they graduated from college – how that secret has played out in their lives. I was fascinated hearing about that testimony. Then when the madam died, it was tragic on a case-level for many reasons, but as a crime-writer, it also raised a question.”

She continued: “My logical prosecutor side thought it was a very sad, tragic way for the case to end. However, the crime-writer in me was wondering could it actually have been a homicide? There were a lot of powerful people who had an incentive to shut her up. If it had been a homicide, who would have committed it? And how would it have been done? That got the wheels turning in my head and was the beginning for the basis of Discretion.”

The novel occurs in Washington, D.C. where a beautiful young woman falls to her death from the balcony of a home belonging to a powerful Congressman. To make things worse for this politician, who’s in the middle of a hard primary fight, the woman was one of the city’s highest-paid escorts. This scandal could cost him the election.
Leading the investigation is Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis, a sex crimes prosecutor introduced in Law of Attraction, Leotta’s debut novel. Anna’s investigation leads her to Discretion, a high-end escort service catering to D.C.’s rich and powerful.

Anna realizes this high-profile case can make her career – or break it, should she make a mistake. Another obstacle is her relationship with Jack Bailey, the chief homicide prosecutor, which the are both keeping quiet in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. This relationship could be exposed in the media attention surrounding this case. However, as the mystery deepens, more than her career is at stake; some very powerful people who are threatened by this investigation want Anna shut up – permanently.

Writing Anna was easier this time around for Leotta.

“She was so young and naïve in the first one. In Discretion she’s more confident, she’s older, she’s wiser, she’s getting her sea legs. It’s fun to be with her as she grew that way. It was fun to see what happened to her relationship with Jack after their happily-ever-after. That was a challenging – and interesting – part to write,” she said.
In addition, Leotta’s e-short-story, “Ten Rules For A Call Girl,” serves as a prequel to Discretion, focusing on the escort prior to her death.

“One interesting thing about the ‘D.C. Madam’ case is the people testifying are the type of people you might meet in court. There was this one guy who testified – he ‘tested’ the escorts (had sex with them). And this was a regular guy – an attorney.

“What happens with most of these escort services – particularly the high-end escort services – generally run by women, is the women can’t test their products; they want a man to give their opinion, so they have a session with a prospective escort and he tells the madam what he thinks. That was something I found intriguing and something I put in Discretion. He was just a regular guy. You might meet him at a Bar function. He might be on some advisory committee. Who knows? It’s this idea that everybody has this secret life. How did they come about getting it and how does it affect them as they try to carry out the side of their life that isn’t secret?” explained Leotta.

Critics have called her “the female John Grisham,” referring to one of the godfathers of the modern-day legal thriller , best known for The Firm (which was later made into a 1993 movie with Tom Cruise and into an NBC TV series earlier this year with Josh Lucas).

“I love John Grisham’s books,” said Leotta. “I’m happy to bring the female perspective to the table. It’s an honor to be called that.”