Lisa Scottoline, Mistaken Identity (Harper, 1999)
[originally posted 14Nov2001]
Three pages into Lisa Scottoline’s sixth novel, Mistaken Identity, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to page ten. Scottoline opens the novel with her protagonist, Bennie Rosato, walking into the county prison where her newest client is in residence, mentally rattling off statistics that we’ve all heard a million times, most of which are, to say the least, on shaky ground as far as their worth is concerned. It is a horrible opening; thankfully, it is also short. The book improves tremendously on page four, and stays improved for the next five hundred plus pages.
Rosato’s newest client is Alice Connolly, who greets her with the rather surprising revelation that Connolly is Rosato’s twin, despite that the two have never met before. The twin thing certainly throws a few extra monkeywrenches into the works of the normal courtroom/detective story, not that it needed any. Connolly is accused of killing her live-in boyfriend, a Philadelphia police officer, and makes nasty hints that other cops are framing her. The first half of the book alternates between Rosato trying to figure out if there really is a conspiracy and trying to figure out whether Connolly actually killed her boyfriend, as the two things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. This section is standard mystery fare; if you’re a fan of the genre, it’ll work for you.
Where Scottoline shines is once the case gets to court. When you reach page 300 and they’re getting ready for trial, you start wondering how Scottoline is going to fill the second half of the book. She does so brilliantly, better even than many nonfiction true crime books cover trials. In fact, the only book I can think of that goes into this much detail of the trial, specifically the dialogue, is Bataille’s The Trial of Gilles de Rais (in which the second half of the book is simply unexpurgated trial transcripts). In both Bataille’s work of nonfiction and Scottoline’s novel, we are given solid evidence that cutting out the supposedly extraneous material of a trial, a rather common method of speeding up books/movies/TV shows, may be good for cutting time, but that all the other stuff is going to be just as gripping to the devoted reader of courtroom-procedure books. Scottoline takes us, line by line, through a cross-examination instead of summarizing. It’s wonderful. Would that more courtroom-drama authors did such things. Maybe, as Scottoline gains the audience she deserves, it’ll catch on.
The beginning of the book is enough to make me drop it a notch, but still a highly recommended read. *** ½