This reading group guide forSpeak of the Devilincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allison Leotta. 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.
In this gripping thriller, Allison Leotta draws on her experience as a prosecutor to take readers into the back rooms of the US Attorney’s Office, the hidden world of the Witness Protection Program, and the secret rituals of one of America’s most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha. The same night that prosecutor Anna Curtis gets engaged, a terrifying man known as Diablo leads a vicious attack on a brothel. Anna is assigned to investigate and bring “the devil” to justice. As the investigation grows larger and Anna begins uncovering the secrets of the Mara Salvatrucha, she must also plan her wedding, become the stepmother to a six-year-old girl, and embrace her new role as one half of a D.C. power couple. As Anna discovers the full extent of Diablo’s depravity, she also discovers long-buried secrets, official lies, and a terrifying danger that comes straight to her doorstep. The facts she unearths in the case not only threaten her plans for a happy marriage, but everything she thought she knew about the past and present, good and evil, and the price of justice.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The opening chapter of Speak of the Devil alternates between the perspectives of Anna Curtis, Tierra Guerrero, and Hector Ramos. Although Anna remains the focus of the book, Leotta tells her story from multiple points of view—including a member of the Mara Salvatrucha. How does Leotta utilize this technique to shape the plot, and increase the tension and drama of the story? Which perspectives surprised you, and why?
2. Speak of the Devil has an extensive cast of fully articulated supporting characters, from FBI agent Samantha Randazzo, to Detective Tavon McGee, Anna’s sister Jody, and Jack’s daughter Olivia. Which of the supporting characters did you find the most compelling? Who did you wish you could have spent more time with?
3. Throughout the narrative, Leotta makes skillful use of subtle and eerie foreshadowing (for example, Luisa’s suspicion of the presence of a ghost in Jack’s house). How many instances of foreshadowing did you catch? Why do you think foreshadowing is so effective in a thriller story?
4. Speak of the Devil sheds light into the inner workings of two completely different worlds—the D.C. criminal justice system and the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. What surprised you the most about the view from the inside of these organizations?
5. Working in the world of criminal justice is a difficult, demanding, and frightening life. Aside from Anna, how do the characters confront or cope with the dangers and sacrifices necessary to be successful in this kind of career? Do you think you could live that kind of life? Why, or why not?
6. The three-dot tattoo worn by many members of MS-13 is a symbol of the three places membership in the gang can take you—prison, the hospital, or the morgue. Hector Ramos is an example of someone who made it out alive, but what is it about this gang that makes it so difficult to transcend these three options? Why would a gang embrace this kind of fatalism?
7. What sets MS-13 apart from other criminal organizations that you’ve read about? Can you speculate about the kind of conditions that could produce a gang with such a brutal philosophy?
8. The character of Gato allows the reader an inside perspective on what it’s actually like to be in a gang, and what could lead a person to live that kind of life. What did you make of Gato’s character, especially his reasoning for membership in the gang, and his later rejection of that life? Did you find it possible to sympathize with such a violent criminal?
9. What do you think gives a character like Diablo so much power? Why is he so much more frightening than the rest of his gang? Is it just the modifications he’s made to his body, or is it something more? Consider Gato’s thoughts on Diablo and his past on pages 206-207.
10. Anna is such a memorable character in part because of her passion for, and skill in, her line of work. What do you think drives her to work so hard for justice? How would you handle a field that confronted you with the worst, most violent criminals that society has to offer? Could you be as tough and fearless as Anna?
11. Although Anna and her sister Jody look remarkably similar, Anna points out that “…their lives were carving them into different shapes (page 213).” Leotta makes great use of the contrast between the two sisters’ careers, relationships, and outlook on life. What do you think could make two sisters lead such different lives? What does Jody’s character tell you about Anna, her past, and her career?
12. The relationship between Jack and Anna repeatedly shifts and evolves throughout the course of the book. What did you make of Anna’s final decision to call off the wedding? Would you have made the same decision?
13. Nina Flores’s decision to enter the Witness Protection program is depicted both as a cowardly and bitter move, and a terribly noble sacrifice. What do you think about Nina’s decision? What kind of choice would you have made in her place? Did you find Nina to be a sympathetic character by the end of the story?
14. In a number of ways, the trial of Psycho and Diablo is a microcosm of the rest of the story, containing many of the themes and conflicts of the narrative as a whole. Most notably, Leotta draws out the contrast between Anna’s professional and personal lives, her confidence levels in each, and how the two worlds are forced together by this particular case—Anna’s confidence is only disturbed by the interaction between Jack and Nina. What does this tell you about Anna’s character? When the personal and the professional collide, how do you confront the difficulties of each?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Frighteningly enough, the Mara Salvatrucha is a real gang. Do some research on the true story of this terrifying gang, and share your findings with your book club. How does the depiction of MS-13 in Speak of the Devil compare with what you’ve learned? Here are some places to start: a. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/explorer/videos/worlds-most-dangerous-gang/ b. http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4539688/the-international-reach-of-the-mara-salvatrucha
2. Sin Nombre is a Spanish-language thriller film about the Mara Salvatrucha. Rent this movie and watch it with your book club. Compare Speak of the Devil and the film’s take on MS-13. How does this film change the way you think of Speak of the Devil? How did the knowledge you brought to the film affect your viewing experience?
3. Speak of the Devil isn’t the only book featuring Anna Curtis—Allison Leotta’s two previous thrillers both feature this tough, beautiful, and skilled prosecutor. Check out either Discretion or Law of Attraction—what did you learn about Anna’s character? How does reading the previous books change your perspective on Speak of the Devil? How has Anna changed from book to book?
A Conversation with Allison Leotta 1. This isn’t your first story featuring Anna Curtis. What is it like to spend so much time with a character? How has your perspective towards her evolved over the course of your three books featuring her?
It’s been fun and challenging to grow with Anna throughout the series. In the first book, she was a rookie, seeing this intense world from the viewpoint of someone new to it. The reader got to learn everything along with her. By book three, Anna knows the ropes, but her personal life is much more complicated.
Over the course of three books, I’ve gotten to know Anna the way you get to know a close friend. I’ve heard it said that an author should put her heroine up in a tree and throw rocks at her: to see how she reacts, what she’s made of. In each book, she gets stronger.
2. Much of your work is based upon your own career. Is this particular story based on a case you had? How much additional research do you do for each novel?
I handled several cases where victims and witnesses were terrified of testifying against MS-13. One of the largest challenges in these cases was convincing these people that they should “speak of the devil”–and protecting them when they did.
Many of the dramatic twists in this novel were inspired by true cases. The opening scene is based on a real police raid of a brothel that coincided with an MS-13 raid–and the ensuing chaos and violence. When a police friend told me about that raid, I knew it was where I wanted to start my story.
After that, I spoke to law enforcement officers I knew who specialize in MS-13 cases, and I attended MS-13 trials in different jurisdictions. A friend of mine in the Eastern District of Virginia had a trial prosecuting several MS-13 men who pimped out fourteen-year-old girls in vans at construction sites. This became the backstory for Nina’s case.
Perhaps the most notorious American MS-13 case is that of Brenda Paz, a seventeen-year-old girl who was a member of the gang and then “flipped” and cooperated with the government. She entered the US Marshals’ Witness Security Program–but was lonely. Against WitSec’s rules, she started hanging out with her friends in the gang again. The gang found out and greenlighted her. She was killed by her MS-13 boyfriend, who cuddled, comforted, and generally “babysat” her the night before. The day of her murder, he and three others took her to a beautiful stretch of the Shenandoah River and stabbed her to death. She was four months pregnant. The idea of a man killing the woman he’d held in his arms the night before–and the extent to which this man was willing to go for his gang–was so chilling, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
3. Beyond Anna, are there other characters from Speak of the Devil that have real-life counterparts? Or are they all from fiction?
Simon & Schuster’s lawyers insist that all the characters are completely fictional! But many of my fictional characters are composites of real people I’ve met. McGee–one of my favorite characters–is a compilation of some of the finest MPD detectives I’ve worked with. And Raffles the cat is based on a real cat.
4. There’s a lot of detail about the workings of the criminal justice system in Speak of the Devil, and they feel extremely accurate—are you ever tempted to bend accuracy for the sake of the story? Or do you always stick to how things really play out?
I’m always tempted to bend accuracy–it would be so much easier! But accuracy is what I bring to the table, and I really do try to make my stories as genuine and authentic as possible. My husband, Mike, was also a federal prosecutor, and he’s very good about keeping my writing real. He’s my first reader and most important critic.
Still, I can’t write what actually happens at the USAO on a day-to-day basis–how boring! Imagine all the scenes of Anna typing at her computer, reading stacks of police paperwork, or digging through file cabinets. Any scene involving filing cabinets is an automatic candidate for deletion. I try to focus the story on the dramatic parts of the legal process. In each of my novels, Anna has the case of a lifetime. As long as it’s plausible that such a case could happen in some prosecutor’s lifetime, I’m okay with it.
5. Which other depictions of your former line of work do you think are the most accurate or compelling? Which do you think totally miss the mark?
No shocker, I think prosecutors-turned-authors best capture the legal stuff. Scott Turow, a former Chicago AUSA and phenomenal all-around writer, paints wonderfully dramatic and accurate courtroom scenes. Linda Fairstein, Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan DA 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. Former prosecutor William Landay’s most recent novel, Defending Jacob, is so hauntingly good, I couldn’t write a word of my own for weeks after reading it.
Two of my favorite non-lawyer 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.
TV crime shows like CSI most often get it wrong. You’ve probably heard of the “CSI Effect” – the fact that modern jurors come into courtrooms expecting to see some sort of amazing technological magic, like an infrared camera that can be waved around to immediately tell whodunnit. The science just doesn’t work that way in real life, and real prosecutors have to gently lower these TV-fed expectations each time they make an opening statement. Even when there is DNA at a crime scene, for example, that alone doesn’t tell you what happened. You need to talk to people: to establish the relationships between the actors, flesh out motives, and say who was where, when. Despite all the advances in science, some of the best police work is still done by a dedicated detective with a notepad and some people skills.
6. Now that you’ve written several books based upon your work as a prosecutor, do you find your perspective on that career has changed?
Yes. As a prosecutor, you tend to see the trees rather than the forest. You’re looking into all the details of the case and the family involved: How often does Uncle Boo visit the house? Did he have access to little Tommy? Are he and Tommy’s mom beefing, giving her a reason to lie about him? It’s all about the details.
As a writer, I need to see the forest, too. Where are the major areas of danger, of injustice, of conflict? Then I have to take these trends and make them personal again, weaving them into a story involving characters you care about.
In the end, both prosecuting and novel-writing are about telling a compelling story.
7. Obviously, writing and working as prosecutor are very different careers! Do you miss being a prosecutor?
I miss the people. The DC US Attorney’s Office has some of the best lawyers in America, and there is a remarkable feeling of bonding that comes from fighting the good fight, together, every day. Now it’s just me alone at my kitchen table. I recently adopted a cute little mutt. She’s not a fabulous conversationalist, but it’s nice to have a reason to use my vocal chords, even if it’s just to say, “Oh, you’re such a good little puppy, aren’t you?” periodically.
But I love writing, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do this. Books were my first love, and being a full-time novelist is a dream come true.
It also helps that my editor, Lauren Spiegel, is always up for talking about my stories. I love gossiping with her about the characters–it’s fun, and her observations always make my story better.
8. One of the most compelling parts of Speak of the Devil is the character of Gato, and his life in MS-13. What was it like to get inside the head of, and even sympathize with, such a violent criminal?
With every case I ever handled, I tried to get inside the head of the defendant: to understand what he was thinking, why he did what he did, and what his defense was going to be. In almost every case, the man (my defendants were usually male) was not a monster but a person who’d been victimized or terribly marginalized in some way himself.
One of the most heartwrenching things to see is how the cycle of violence repeats itself, with children of abuse often becoming perpetrators of it. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a prosecutor is when you feel that your work has, perhaps, stopped some particular cycle in its tracks.
9. You skillfully weave together the story of Anna’s professional life and her personal life—which do you find more difficult to write? Do you find either more interesting to work with, as a writer?
I vastly prefer to write about her personal life! With the legal side of things, I agonize over getting the details just right, and spend hours talking to sources and checking statute books. The writing is slow and painstaking. But her personal life is pure fun to write; it flows. I hate to say it, but Anna’s worst personal day is far easier for me to write than her most triumphant legal victory.
10. What can we expect next from Anna Curtis? Are you planning more novels with this character? Are you working on any more stories that depart from the Anna Curtis storyline?
Anna’s going to need some time to recover from the events in Speak of the Devil. I’m thinking of sending her on vacation, or having her just hang out at Sergio’s restaurant for a while. Something to take her mind off Jack. Eat, Pray, Love on a smaller scale, because, of course, she won’t be able to stay away from legal drama for long.
I do have some ideas for a couple of stand-alone novels, which I’m really excited to write. I hope my readers will be as interested in a book where Anna takes a well-deserved break!