Rape, an ugly reality once mostly whispered about, is now everywhere in the news: rapes by college boys and star athletes, in fraternity houses, prisons and the military, even rape used as an instrument of war. Allison Leotta’s “A Good Killing” is a novel about rape and murder in a Midwestern town by a writer exceptionally well-informed on crimes against women. A federal sex-crimes prosecutor for 12 years, Leotta has reinvented herself as a novelist, and “A Good Killing,” her fourth book about prosecutor Anna Curtis, takes an angry look at the obstacles rape victims too often encounter.
When Curtis learns that her younger sister, 25-year-old Jody, has been charged with murdering the popular high-school football coach in their home town of Holly Grove, Mich., the Department of Justice prosecutor hurries home to defend her. We learn that the coach, a local hero for producing winning teams, had raped Jody when she was 15. Although Jody and her mother reported the attack, the police and local prosecutor insisted that Jody had no proof and that pushing the matter would only harm the girl. Like many victims before her, Jody felt that in dealing with the police, she was raped a second time.
In the aftermath of that trauma, she passed up college, took a job on a GM assembly line and bounced from one unsuitable man to another. (“The one thing I know about men is they can’t be trusted.”) Her troubled life contrasts with that of Anna, who proceeded to college, law school and a brilliant career. There is love between the sisters but, inevitably, resentment as well.
Now, 10 years after the rape, Jody is accused of killing the 50-year-old coach. She admits that he came to her home the night he died but insists that he left there unharmed. Anna learns that the coach had a history of raping teenage girls but was always protected by local officials. She also learns about wife-beating, bullying that led to a teenager’s suicide, and widespread political corruption in her less-than-idyllic home town. She realizes, as she prepares for her sister’s trial, that the police, prosecutor, judge and many potential jurors are solidly on the side of the man who brought gridiron glory to their little town.
Many local women know the coach was a rapist and a pedophile and believe his death was, as the title proclaims, “a good killing.” Still, the question for Anna is whether she can save her sister from being railroaded into prison for it. For one thing, she fears the judge may not even admit evidence of the coach’s other attacks on teenage girls.
As Anna struggles to mount a defense, she is also dealing with a romantic crisis. As the story begins, she has broken off her engagement to another Justice Department lawyer because he was considering reconciliating with his ex-wife. But upon returning to Holly Grove, she encounters a friend from high school who lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan but proves to be an unusually attractive and sympathetic man. Their mutual attraction and her uncertainty about even a brief fling are deftly handled. Anna contemplates this man’s charms:
“His eyes were strikingly beautiful — lightest blue irises encircled by deep indigo — but what she liked most was how much kindness they held.” Kindness has proved to be a rare commodity among men in her home town.
Leotta’s portrait of Jody as a teenager easily manipulated by a predatory older man rings painfully true, as do her many examples of rampant sexism. The novel leads to surprises involving the women of Holly Grove that go well beyond whether Jody will be found innocent or guilty. Leotta is clearly using Jody’s case to reflect injustices that are widespread. As one woman in the book puts it, the question all women face is simply whether they can “find a little justice in a man’s world.”
Leotta, a Harvard Law graduate who lives in Takoma Park, Md., with her husband and two sons, wrote her first novel, “Law of Attraction” (2010), early in the mornings, late at night and on weekends while still a prosecutor. Its success led to full-time writing. The first novel focused on domestic violence cases; “Discretion” (2012) involved a high-priced call girl who plunges to her death from a balcony at (gasp!) the U.S. Capitol; and “Speak of the Devil” (2013) pitted Curtis against the brutal MS-13 street gang. They’re smart, tough-minded tales, well worth a look.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.