An oddly affecting combination love story, legal thriller, and ethnic screwball comedy, Lisa Scottoline's The Vendetta Defense offers a solidly entertaining account of murder and revenge, and examines the workings of the criminal justice system from a startlingly different perspective. As its plot unfolds, the novel raises provocative ethical questions and never settles for glib or easy answers. At the same time, it successfully dramatizes the collision of two radically different cultures and brings a colorful, autonomous community -- the Italian-American neighborhoods of South Philadelphia -- vibrantly to life.
The Vendetta Defense features gutsy, likable Philadelphia lawyer Judy Carrier, last seen in a supporting role in Moment of Truth. Judy is a legal scholar employed by Rosato and Associates, an all-female law firm run by long-term Scottoline heroine Benadetta "Bennie" Rosato (Legal Tender, Mistaken Identity). As the novel opens, Judy is at work on a dry, academic brief when she learns that Tony Lucia -- family friend of another Scottoline heroine, Mary DiNunzio -- has just been arrested for murder. Tony -- known throughout his South Philadelphia neighborhood as Pigeon Tony -- is a 79-year-old Italian immigrant who has spent most of his life breeding prize-winning racing pigeons. When he inexplicably murders a fellow immigrant -- 83-year-old Angelo Coluzzi -- Judy comes to his defense.
Tony's case is complicated by a single, irrefutable fact: He is technically guilty. Tony, as he immediately admits, killed Coluzzi in a fit of rage, thus concluding a vendetta begun more than 50 years before. In Tony's version of events, a jealous Angelo Coluzzi murdered Sylvana Lucia, Tony's wife, in the early days of World War II, when Angelo served as the local Fascist leader of their small Italian town. The blood feud continued across the generations, culminating in the murder of Tony's son and daughter-in-law and in Tony's act of belated retaliation. Given the peculiar circumstances of the case, Judy finds herself facing an uphill legal battle. Saddled with a client who insists on acknowledging his role in Coluzzi's death, she must somehow convince a skeptical jury that Tony's history of loss and suffering justifies his actions.
Scottoline handles this unique scenario with intelligence, sympathy, and characteristic wit. Her narrative ranges gracefully back and forth from Fascist Italy to contemporary America, gradually illuminating the personal and historical forces that turned a decent, good-hearted man into a killer. The result is a novel that entertains and enlightens in equal measure. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).