'The Vendetta Defense' -- procedure at its deftest

On Books

March 18, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

The most effective writers of entertainment fiction demonstrate an uncanny mastery of the details of a profession and a place: There's Ed McBain with his peerless knowledge of the New York police; Ian Fleming and his intriguing, thoroughly believable visions of futuristic technology; and W.E.B. Griffin's intricate understanding of American military men, fighting World War II.

After reading Lisa Scottoline's new novel, "The Vendetta Defense" (HarperCollins, 400 pages, $25), it's clear to me that this lawyer-turned-writer has joined the ranks of McBain and company. This book, her eighth, is charming -- swift and suspenseful enough to hold you in an airline center seat for almost endless hours, yet graced with firm moral purpose.

Scottoline is deft with detail, but it is her command of what might be called live litigation that makes the whole thing work.

The story is full of twists, reversals, dodges and side roads, but its core line of action is that Judy Carrier, a young lawyer, takes on the job of defending Tony Lucia, 79, charged with murdering Angelo Coluzzi, the same age, in a rundown South Philadelphia rowhouse that serves as a neighborhood pigeon fanciers' club.

She was asked to take the case by her best friend, whose family is faithfully close to the Lucias -- "Pigeon Tony" and his grandson Frank, a stonemason, being the last surviving family members, since Frank's parents were killed in an auto accident. Judy is a mid-level associate in a small, all-woman law firm founded and run by Bennie Rosato, also a woman, who has figured in major ways in previous Scottoline books.

Fairly quickly, it is established that in Abruzzi in the 1940s, Pigeon Tony won the heart of Silvana, a beauteous young woman of higher social station, who was being wooed by Angelo Coluzzi, a Fascist thug also several rungs above Tony in social, political and economic terms. Tony and Silvana are married. They have a son. Silvana is found murdered in the barn. Nobody doubts Coluzzi did the foul deed, but Black Shirts, under Il Duce, are above the law.

Everybody ends up in South Philadelphia, which is sort of Abruzzi West. Everybody goes into one part or another of the construction trade. Bad blood boils between Lucias and Coluzzis. Given their history -- and Colluzi's taunting declaration that he killed Silvana and Frank's parents -- it's no surprise that Lucia breaks his neck. Long delay, but true to the code of vendetta.

There develops a remarkable, enchanted and enchanting relationship between Judy and Pigeon Tony. His English is very weak, having spent much of his adult life in an Italian-speaking community. She knows no Italian. After her initial waves of revulsion for the death he is proud to have caused, she begins to understand his code of conduct -- a valid system that makes the killing of a murderous man an act of justice rather than a crime.

Car bombs, shootings and other acts of terrorism by the Coluzzi clan confront Judy and the tough-talking, tougher-acting Bennie Rosato. They decide to fight back with civil lawsuits against that clan's large, corrupt contracting firm. These are tough people, set in their ways, and those ways are violent and retributive -- people for whom the law is whatever serves and protects their own interests.

The trial preparation and courtroom stuff is what gives the book its greatest strength. Scottoline knows the biz. Now in her mid-40s, she was a trial lawyer and served as law clerk to both Pennsylvania state and federal appellate judges -- before quitting, about 10 years ago, to write books. She is masterful with the details, the lonely tension, the intricacy of procedure of a major criminal defense -- work in which 80 percent is instinctive for its practitioners.

Scottoline is good on other details -- lots of funny Italian proverbs, good stuff on stone masonry, life in Fascist-era Italy, masterful material on the breeding and racing of carrier pigeons. (It's not for nothing that Judy's surname is Carrier.) She can be forgiven, perhaps, for having Abruzzi locals refer to their homemade wine as "Chianti" -- which is a particularly specific wine variety made only in Tuscany, 150 miles and the breadth of Italy away.

Scottoline is splendidly pointillist -- making large pictures with small detail: "She [Judy] took a reflective sip of coffee, eased back in an ergonomically correct chair whose cushions stabbed her in the back and shoulders, and crossed her legs, which were strong and shapely but completely bare. In Judy's view pantyhose was for Republicans." And, again, "Judy had no religion per se, but she did believe in karma, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and Vincent Van Gogh." And "Judy felt a headache coming on. She hadn't eaten in hours. She hadn't slept in days. She hadn't had sex in a year. She'd never had sex with an Italian, and it was looking like she never would." (Ultimately, yes, she does; Frank is her kind of hunk.)

The women are the best of the book -- Judy and Bennie are impossible not to be in love with, both quirky, willful, smart, impatient with stupidity or venality. There are others as well. But the men are at best dumb, huggable nonentities. It is not exactly a chick book, but it will do -- and maybe do better -- till a self-labeled one comes along.

For much of the way, the weakest leg of the book seemed to me to be the consistent naivete of Pigeon Tony, who despite hours of explanation and insistence over weeks by his lawyer, grandson and others, cannot get through his head the most basic issues of the law. But ultimately, that is where Scottoline's mastery of the heart of the law works: He emerges, in a truly moving finale, as a full and deeply believable man of complexity and dignity.

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