The “D.C. Madam” scandal served as a jumping-off point for Michigan State University aluma Allison Leotta’s latest legal thriller, “Discretion.”
“As a prosecutor, I handled a lot of cases where the victims were prostitutes,” Leotta said in a phone interview. “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.’”
Leotta appears at 7 p.m. Thursday at Schuler Books & Music in Okemos.
A former sex crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, Leotta grew up in Farmington Hills and lives outside Washington with her family. She is an alumna of Harvard University, where she received her juris doctorate in law. By becoming a lawyer, Leotta followed in the footsteps of her father, Alan Harnisch.
The “D.C. Madam” scandal came to light in 2006, centering on Deborah Jane Palfrey, who owned and operated the Washington-based escort agency Pamela Martin and Associates. Palfrey escorts, many of whom had recently graduated from college or had professional 9-to-5 day jobs, charged as much as $300 per hour. Palfrey made more than $2 million in 13 years.
In 2008, Palfrey was convicted of racketeering, money laundering and using the mail for illegal purposes. She faced 55 years in prison. Palfrey committed suicide.
“I was fascinated by the case,” Leotta said. “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.
“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 done 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 is set in Washington, where a beautiful young woman falls to her death from the balcony of the residence of 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.
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.
This high-profile case could make Anna’s career -— or break it, should she make a mistake. Another obstacle is her relationship with Jack Bailey, the chief homicide prosecutor, which they’re 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 (‘Law of Attraction’). 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,” Leotta said. “There was this one guy who testified he ‘tested’ the escorts (by having 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 tell 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?”
Critics have called her “the female John Grisham,” referring to one of the godfathers of the modern-day legal thriller.
“I love John Grisham’s books,” Leotta. said. “I’m happy to bring the female perspective to the table. It’s an honor to be called that.”
7 p.m. Thursday, July 19
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Ave.,