Friday, March 11, 2005

Prosecutor turns to (fictitious) crime
By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY

For eight years, Michele Martinez hung out with criminals. As a federal prosecutor in New York City, she battled Mexican cocaine cartels smuggling drug money out of the country, fought Burmese warlords secreting hundreds of kilos of heroin into the USA and got the upper hand on crack dealers operating in American cities.

Now, she's mixed up with mayhem of a different sort: criminals created in her imagination.

Martinez's first crime novel, Most Wanted (William Morrow, $23.95), is getting lots of attention. Aside from being chosen by the Literary Guild, Doubleday and Mystery Guild book clubs, it's also the BookSense Pick for March by the American Booksellers Association.

Martinez's new life as a published author gives her entrance into an exclusive club: women in the legal profession who have turned to a life of crime, at least in their books. (Related story: Lady lawyers gone literary)

For years, crime novels written by male attorneys such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson topped best-seller lists. Female lawyers began joining their ranks in the '90s, with Lisa Scottoline's Everywhere That Mary Went (1993) and Linda Fairstein's Final Jeopardy (1996) Since then, the list has been growing.

"It's a natural progression for women with a legal background who want to write," says Martinez, 42. "As a prosecutor, I dealt with crime all the time the way that Linda Fairstein (best-selling author and former head of New York City's Sex Crimes Unit) did. I have an incredible wealth of material to draw on."

And, like Scottoline's, Martinez's career change from law to writing had a lot to do with being a mom and wanting to spend more time with her family: her husband, Jeff, an attorney, and two sons, Jack, 8, and William, 5. She believes that weaving women's conflicted feelings about work and family into the life of Melanie Vargas, Most Wanted's main character, gives her novel a different approach.

"A lot of female protagonists in crime novels have a very convenient solitary life," Martinez says. "My heroine is a little different because she's a mother. How is she going to go out and investigate this crime at 3 in the morning when she is separated from her husband and her baby's asleep in the crib? It poses a problem for my character that I faced in my own life."

Martinez, the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and a Russian Jewish mother, says readers of all ethnic backgrounds will identify with Melanie, her Latina protagonist.

"It's about more than her particular linguistic or ethnic background. It's about the experience of having immigrant parents or starting out at a certain point in terms of your family's financial situation, maybe living in a bad neighborhood, maybe figuring out how you're going to make it in life. That's the personal experiment that I bring to the character."

In Most Wanted, Melanie, a federal prosecutor, tries to solve the murder of a famous lawyer who is tortured and found dead in his burning Manhattan home. She struggles to prove herself on the job, be a good mother and deal with the knowledge that her husband had an affair while she was pregnant.

Martinez says she had no problem coming up with the book's plot — it came to her in a dream. But, she says, "I needed to figure out how to create suspense, and create plotting and pacing. I had knowledge about crime and criminal investigation. But how do you put this together and make it flow and make the pages turn? For that, I really got a lot of help just by reading." - Prosecutor turns to (fictitious) crime

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