Watch out, George Pelecanos! You’ve got competition. There’s another voice making noise on the Washington, DC thriller scene, and it may be time to ask if this town is big enough for both of you. Given that the voice is an ex-federal sex-crime prosecutor who combines professional expertise with a breezy prose style and a flair for dramatic narrative, this is a competition that is likely to provide readers with a good many hours of happy reading.
Allison Leotta is the competing voice, and Speak of the Devil, out this week, is her third novel. Anna Curtis, her series heroine, is a sex-crime prosecutor. But if your idea of a prosecutor comes from the hapless Hamilton Burger, think again. Anna is a willowy blond knockout, as professionally competent as she is beautiful. As the current novel opens she is in a restaurant awaiting the arrival of the man she has finally decided she is in love with after what she hopes has been a temporary hiccup in their relationship. The sex-crime unit is about to raid a local brothel, but before they can get the undercover officer in place, the brothel is attacked by members of a vicious Salvadoran gang, the M-13.
The narrative moves back and forth between Anna’s personal life and her attempt to deal with the gang until both become almost inextricably wound around each other in a complex tangle filled with surprising revelations. Sexy and brutal, Speak of the Devil takes an unvarnished look at the seamiest side of life in the nation’s capital, and it does so with a wealth of convincing authoritative detail. Whether it is the explanation of the arraignment process or the description of a witness interview room, it is clear that this is an author who knows what she’s talking about.
So when she sets up a brutal larger than life villain with a face like a devil, it is easy for the reader to buy into the character. Her descriptions of M-13 protocol, their initiation practices, the way they treat their women, their meetings and hierarchy are all explained in the kind of detail that gives everything connected with them a sense of reality. Diablo, the gang’s ostensible leader, with his horns and tattooed face, brandishing his machete and terrifying civilians and gang members as well, is more than a monster hiding under the bed. What could have been a kind of comic book villain, becomes a terrifying threat, and the stakes for Anna and her loved ones are truly high.
Readers who come to the book without having read Leotta’s first two novels will more than likely be eager to rectify that mistake. Not that it’s necessary to have read them to understand what’s going on in Speak of the Devil, it’s not. It’s simply that this latest is so well done, it demands the others–Discretion, Law of Attraction– be read as well.