Lisa Scottoline has the antidote for all the emotionally debilitating stories spewing from our daily news feeds: a deliciously distracting thriller.
“After Anna,” her latest stand-alone novel, fits comfortably into the on-trend female-centric psychological suspense genre. In these popular works, from Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” to A.J. Finn’s “The Woman in the Window,” women are the alleged victims of heinous crimes that are often solved by other women — police detectives, private investigators or friends and loved ones.
Best known for legal thrillers featuring the wily women who work for an all-female law office in Philadelphia, Scottoline often makes mothers the heroines of her stand-alone works, and this holds true in “After Anna.”
The last time Maggie Ippoliti saw her daughter, Anna was just 6 months old. Maggie was voluntarily institutionalized 17 years earlier when she feared her postpartum psychosis would lead to her harming her child. Maggie’s feckless, unfaithful husband took advantage of Maggie’s illness and whisked Anna away to Europe where he eventually dumped her in a boarding school, out of Maggie’s reach. Meanwhile, Maggie recovered and made a new life for herself with her new husband, Noah, and his 10-year-old son, Caleb.
One day, out of the blue, Maggie gets a phone call from Anna, who wants to reconnect. Beside herself with joy — Maggie’s never stopped yearning for her daughter — they make plans to meet. And in less than a day, Anna is moving in with Maggie, Noah and Caleb. No way will this scenario have a happy ending, and, of course, it doesn’t.
Early on, Scottoline quickly rolls out a stunner of a story line, and even its bare bones are meaty and scrumptiously intriguing. Just 17 days after Anna moves in, Noah is accused of sexually abusing Anna and then killing her. “After Anna” opens on the 10th day of Noah’s murder trial. The trial chapters, titled “Noah, After,” are told in descending chronological order and are interspersed with “Maggie, Before” chapters, which tell the story of Anna from her reunion with Maggie up until the startling reveals of the book’s last pages. We learn quickly about the murder and whether Noah is innocent or guilty, but there’s plenty to keep us guessing.
A former practicing attorney who lays out complicated legal strategies in her Rosato & DiNunzio thrillers, Scottoline again puts her legal chops on display through the prosecuting attorney in Noah’s case. She is “simply dismantling him, the way a butcher breaks apart a chicken carcass, piece by piece, wedging back the legs and wings until the joint breaks, then tearing the limbs off.” Ouch!
Among the damning evidence the prosecution has gathered is a text from Noah to Anna asking her to meet him at his home the night of the murder. But how can this be possible when Noah claims his phone was locked in his car at the time the text was sent?
Anna’s accusations of sexual misconduct and the Protection From Abuse order she takes out against Noah just a few days before she dies keep us riveted. Scottoline dispenses plotline mind tricks. She makes us feel guilty for wondering if Noah might be innocent. She makes us feel equally guilty for doubting Anna. On the other hand, we also feel guilty for believing her. It’s a conundrum that whirls through Maggie as well.
Readers always know more than Maggie but not everything. The real story about the explosive relationship between Maggie and Noah is episodically revealed with Scottoline illuminating the landing strip of revelations and truths in a deliciously slow and intense way. Maggie and the reader are mystified. If Anna’s lying about the abuse, why would she do it? And while you may have your own ideas about what’s going on, you’ll never really know until Scottoline decides to tell you. The last 100 pages of this book are nerve-rattling, shocking and explosively violent, even as Scottoline gets to the heart of what lengths a mother will go to protect her child.
Carol Memmott is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.
By Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin’s. 352 pp. $27.99