Photo courtesy of Allison Leotta.
By Kurt Anthony Krug
Allison Leotta – alias the “female John Grisham” – was beyond elated when her latest legal thriller “The Last Good Girl” was one of 20 books that earned the 2017 Michigan Notable Book Award.
“It was wonderful when I heard the announcement. I was thrilled. This book takes place in Michigan – my home state – and to be recognized by my home state was incredibly satisfying. It was an honor,” said Leotta, who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband and family.
Leotta and her mother, Diane Harnisch, attended the 2017 Michigan Notable Book Awards ceremony that was hosted by the Library of Michigan in Lansing on April 1.
“One of the highlights of this Notable Book night was meeting the other authors. There were just some incredible authors writing novels, short stories, and non-fiction books about Michigan – they’re a fascinating, super-talented group,” said Leotta. “The library in Lansing is such a beautiful, beautiful building. It’s so amazing to see how much love books are getting in Michigan. You can really see that in this building.”
Each year, the Michigan Notable Book list features 20 books, published during the previous calendar year, which are about Michigan and/or set in Michigan and/or the Great Lakes region and/or written by an author with Michigan ties. Selections include a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, that appeal to many audiences and explore topics and issues close to the hearts of Michigan residents.
“I think it’s a wonderful program. The library is trying to bring attention to Michigan-based books and authors,” said Leotta. “They’re also trying to bring authors to small towns in Michigan. Part of the program is authors visit small town libraries across the state that might not normally get an author to come visit. I visited (the libraries in) Holt and Lakeview, both of which are off the beaten path – it was just wonderful.”
MNB is a statewide program that began as part of the 1991 Michigan Week celebration, designed to pay tribute and draw attention to the many people, places, and things that make life in Michigan unique and vibrant.
“The MNB selections clearly demonstrate the rich subject matter Michigan offers to writers,” said State Librarian Randy Riley. “Everyone will find something of interest that speaks to their lives or experiences in our great state.”
State Superintendent Brian Whiston agreed.
“This intriguing collection of books represents a spectrum of Michigan’s people, places and the history that makes our state unique,” said Whiston. “I’m continuously impressed by the ever-increasing strength and popularity of the Library of Michigan’s Michigan Notable Book list. The abundance of quality writing generates more interest every year among bookstores, writers, libraries, and readers from all walks of life.”
“Good Girl” – which will be released in paperback on May 30 – is the fifth novel to feature federal sex crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis. It explores the controversial topic of sexual assault on college campuses. College freshman Emily Shaprio, who attends the fictional Tower University, disappears after leaving a bar near the Beta Psi fraternity house. The main suspect is senior Dylan Highsmith, son of Michigan’s lieutenant governor. Prior to her disappearance, Emily – the daughter of Tower’s president – stated on her vlog that Dylan raped her.
“I thought it was important to have Emily’s voice in there, especially since she’s not there for most of the book,” said Leotta. “This is about how power gets wielded on a college campus; there’s the haves and the have-nots. Who has the power on campus isn’t the same as who has the power in the outside world. These are two children of privilege, but both have very different experiences dealing with the college system.”
All fingers are pointed at Dylan, whose frat is called the “rape factory.” Building her case against Dylan, Anna races against the clock in the hopes of finding Emily alive, but her investigation is railroaded by the political clout of Dylan’s powerful father.
“This book is so important to me. I felt compelled to write it. Too many young women are sexually assaulted during what should be a wonderful and empowering time of their lives – their college years. These survivors often feel assaulted a second time by flawed college disciplinary systems that ignore, dismiss, or cover up rape reports,” explained Leotta.
A disproportionate number of rapes occur during the first week of college, which is called the “Red Zone.” Colleges and universities are concerned about application rates dropping if it’s publicized that a rape has occurred on campus. College officials have a vested interest in keeping it quiet and reporting zero rapes per year. This is addressed in “Good Girl” as Emily’s plight is compounded by her father’s decision to put Tower’s reputation before his own daughter’s health and well-being.
“With (‘Good Girl’), I wanted to both to tell a compelling story and to examine the powerful forces that rip through these cases – from misperceptions sparked by the Rolling Stone article to the media furor sparked by the ‘mattress carrier’ – and the real emotion and consequences for young people caught in these currents,” said Leotta. “(‘Good Girl’) is one of the more important books I’ve written about in terms of this topic. It needs a lot more attention and in writing this book, I wanted to bring a lot more attention to the topic of sexual assault on college campuses.”
An alumna of Groves High School in Birmingham, Leotta graduated from Michigan State University (where some of “Good Girl” also occurs) with her undergraduate degree in international studies. She earned her juris doctorate from Harvard Law School. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. – where she prosecuted sex crimes and domestic violence cases for 12 years – Leotta has also provided legal commentary for CNN, PBS, Reuters TV, and MSNBC in addition to writing legal thrillers. She is currently at work on her next novel and has a TV project in the works, but couldn’t provide much detail at this time.
Former MSU law professor and fellow attorney-turned-author Anthony Franze and Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, praised Leotta’s novels. In fact, Agnew has hosted Leotta twice at Aunt Agatha’s.
“They call Allison ‘the female John Grisham’ for a reason: She writes books that make your knuckles bleed because you’re turning the pages so quickly. Her books are also smart and weighty – her years as a sex-crime prosecutor gave her insights into the minds of victims and monsters,” said Franze.
Added Agnew: “One of the things Leotta does very well in her novels is to take a particularly sensitive and timely topic and shine a light on it. She brings her own professional background as a sex crimes prosecutor to the table, and the recipe for a chilling, well-told tale is all there.”