This reading group guide forDiscretionincludes an introduction, discussion questions, a Q&A with author Allison Leotta, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A beautiful young woman falls to her death from the U.S. Capitol office of Congressman Emmett Lionel, a political powerhouse. Prosecutor Anna Curtis quickly learns that the woman is one of D.C.’s most desired—and high-priced—escorts. The revelation starts Anna down a shadowy road through the capital’s underworld, where sex and power intertwine. The timing couldn’t be worse for Lionel, tangled in an increasingly brutal primary fight. To the public, Lionel professes his innocence and vows to seek justice, but to the investigators, he obstructs every move.
Complicating matters is Anna’s secret romance with chief homicide prosecutor Jack Bailey, who leads the investigation.
The case leads Anna to Discretion, an escort service “for the man who can afford anything but publicity.” The agency is ruthlessly determined to protect its clients, and the clients have so much to lose—and so much power to wield—that Anna’s job and life are soon in grave danger.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Do you think it is ethical for Anna and Jack to work on the same the case while in a romantic relationship? What are the pros and cons of their working together?
2. Did you have any previous knowledge of the Jefferson case? Do you think police should be allowed to search the offices of politicians being investigated for corruption?
3. Do you think Anna and Jack are a good match? How do they complement each other? What struggles do you see ahead for them?
4. How would you define “prostitute”? How about “escort”?
5. Do you know what “the girlfriend experience” provided by high-end escorts is? What do you think is the appeal of this for participants on both sides of the transaction? Do you think a woman who provides this is a prostitute, even though she does not solicit on the street?
6. What was your reaction to learning that Caroline and Nicole were students at Georgetown, a prestigious and academically rigorous university? Did this change your perceptions about who might be a sex worker and what would motivate someone to become one? Besides money, why do you think both girls decided to work at Discretion?
7. What was your opinion on prostitution before reading the book? Did the story change your mind?
8. Was it fair for Dylan Youngblood to use the case against Lionel for political gain? Do you think politicians’ personal lives should become issues in their campaigns?
9. How would you characterize Lionel’s behavior during the investigation? Do you think some of Lionel’s concerns were valid? For example, consider his fight to keep investigators from searching his office or his opposition to an acquaintance of his political rival working the investigation.
10. Did learning about Nicole’s childhood change your opinion of her? How do you think her past affected her choices? Besides her drug problem, does she exhibit any other signs of addiction?
11. Discuss actual cases that are similar to those in Discretion. Consider the scandals surrounding Governor Eliot Spitzer, New York’s “Millionaire Madam,” and the “D.C. Madam.”
12. The intersection of sex and politics is a recurring theme in modern entertainment—and real life. Why are these two so often intertwined? Why do you think we find this fascinating?
A Conversation with Allison Leotta
Was Discretion inspired by your work or by any specific cases?
For twelve years, I prosecuted sex crimes, domestic violence, and other crimes in Washington, D.C. I saw the cases the press would glamorize—high-end escort services like that of the D.C. Madam and New York’s Millionaire Madam. But I also saw that both high-priced call girls and low-rent streetwalkers were among the most vulnerable of women to being raped, assaulted, and murdered. I wanted to understand the lives of these madams and their employees: why so many college girls choose such a high-risk route, the secret lives they have to juggle, the dangers they face every time they meet a client.
The case of the D.C. Madam particularly interested me. She operated a high-end escort service that catered to politicians, diplomats, and wealthy businessmen. My office prosecuted and convicted her, but before she was sentenced, she committed suicide. There were plenty of people—wealthy, powerful men—with an incentive to shut her up. My sensible prosecutor side dismissed the speculation, but the crime novelist in me wondered if someone might have killed her and how it might have been done.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I drew on my experiences prosecuting sex workers within the criminal justice system—and talking to former sex workers who now serve as victims’ advocates, helping others leave the business. I also spoke with law enforcement officials and social workers to understand different angles of the sex trade. I was gratified by the candor with which people talked to me about the facts, fantasies, and fetishes that are serviced, and the methods that are employed in this often cutthroat business. In writing Discretion, my challenge wasn’t finding real-life material, but deciding how to explain details that might be shocking for readers to learn.
I also visited the U.S. Capitol and walked through the Rotunda, where famous paintings of America’s birth cover the walls; hundreds of men are portrayed—but I saw only four women and two are naked and on their knees. I started thinking about the sexual power dynamics that have surrounded our country from its founding, and that still surround us today. Those paintings in the Rotunda became part of my first chapter.
The Jefferson case plays a crucial role at the investigation’s outset and is probably unfamiliar to readers. What are your thoughts and interpretations of it?
This is one of the few areas where you can find bipartisan agreement in Congress! Most politicians agree that their offices should not be searched during a criminal investigation.
As a former prosecutor, I think politicians shouldn’t get a free pass to commit crimes from their offices. I was surprised by the court decision in 2007 that held that the FBI was not allowed to search Congressman William Jefferson’s office because of the Speech or Debate Clause ruling. Before that decision, courts had narrowly interpreted that constitutional clause. Since then, many political corruption investigations have been stymied and the result of the case has been to make it easier for politicians to use their offices to commit crimes.
The rights of sex workers are a controversial issue. Is it one you’ve thought about or formed any opinions on? Do you think events like those in Discretion could be averted with any type of legislation?
As a sex-crimes prosecutor, I worked with many sex workers who were victims of violent crimes. One challenge was getting them to trust a system in which they had been repeatedly arrested and prosecuted.
In writing Discretion, though, I was not advocating for a particular reform or legislation. I wanted to tell the story of these people, and the story of prosecutors who try to help them. I hope that when readers put the book down, they will feel entertained, informed, and connected to the characters. I hope the story will spark discussion about and interest in the subject.
What prompted you to start it your blog, the Prime-Time Crime Review? What’s been the reaction to it?
I evaluate TV crime dramas for what they get right and wrong. Lately, I’ve been watching every episode of Law & Order: SVU and giving a recap and reality check. Blogging has been far more productive than throwing slippers at the TV.
I’ve always loved TV crime shows: The drama! The issues! The tear-jerking speeches! These shows were part of what inspired me to go to law school and become a prosecutor. But now, when I relax in front of the TV, only half of my mind is enjoying the story. The other half wants to stand up and shout, “Objection!”
The response to the blog has been surprising and wonderful. It’s won several awards and has an enthusiastic following. The Huffington Post now carries it, too. I enjoy talking to fans about the ins and outs of the stories and the courtroom machinations.
What shows are the most realistic? What shows are the least believable?
The Wire was so realistic that drug dealers in Baltimore were rumored to watch it in order to find out what methods the police used to track them. The Good Wife often covers real issues in a plausible and realistic way.
CSI is the worst offender. In fact, there’s a phenomenon called the “CSI effect,” where jurors come to court expecting to see some forensic magic that instantly solves the case. Prosecutors have to lower these expectations so they’re in line with reality. In real life, some of the best police work is done by a detective with a notebook and good people skills.
Do you think being a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., is different than working in any other city, given all that happens there?
Yes! D.C. has gaggles of politicians and diplomats and is the center of American government. So we have more than our share of the usual suspects. And because it is a federal city, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes both local and federal crimes. D.C. prosecutors have some of the most varied and interesting work in the country. I loved working there, and was only tempted to leave by the prospect of writing books, which is a dream come true for me.
Which writers and books have influenced your writing?
No shocker, I think prosecutors turned authors best capture the legal stuff. John Grisham is a master of making those pages fly. Scott Turow, a former Chicago assistant U.S. attorney and all-around phenomenal writer, paints wonderfully dramatic and accurate courtroom scenes. Linda Fairstein, who was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for decades, played a crucial role in the tectonic shift in attitudes about prosecuting sex crimes. Her knowledge and compassion now infuse her thrillers. Two of my favorite nonlawyer crime writers are Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos, both of whom authentically capture the people and cities they write about. Their novels transcend the crime genre and are just great literary fiction.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Download “Ten Rules for a Call Girl,” Leotta’s free short story about how Nicole lured Caroline into the escort business (available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or the iTunes store). How does this prequel to Discretion enhance or change your view of Caroline’s character? How about Nicole’s?
2. Rent or download the documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. How does that case parallel the story in Discretion? How does it differ?
3. Learn more about the Jefferson case and the court ruling that stemmed from it. Start with this Washington Post article “‘Speech or Debate’ Clause Invoked in Investigations of House Members” about the chilling effect the case has had on prosecuting subsequent political corruption cases (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/16/AR2011011604612.html).
4. Consider the choices Caroline and Nicole made and compare them to the those of the Duke porn star (“Duke Porn Star Reveals Her Identity,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/duke-porn-star_n_4898544.html). Compare and contrast their lives, stories, and reasons for engaging in their work.
5. Check out Allison Leotta’s blog, the Prime-Time Crime Review. Discuss some of Leotta’s critiques. Compare and contrast some TV dramas with the case in Discretion (and Leotta’s other books, if you’ve read them).