‘Accused’: the return of Mary DiNunzio & the Rosato gang

accusedAny popular entertainer faces the challenge of keeping longtime fans happy while trying to grow as an artist (and bring new people into the tent).

Some of my favorite novelists have been able to give us variations on a theme without ever seeming to go stale — Katherine Hall Page has stuck to the Faith Fairchild catering mystery series without repeating herself (or resting on her laurels) for more than 20 years, and Carolyn Hart has been doing the same thing with her wonderful South Carolina mystery bookstore series.

Lisa Scottoline first grabbed readers 20 years ago with legal thrillers set in Philadelphia that introduced us to the smart and funny women lawyers who would form an all-female law firm led by the amazing “Bennie” Rosato.

Scottoline was tagged “the female John Grisham” by People magazine which was nice for marketing purposes, but inaccurate when it came to the content of the novels.

The quote was also a more than slightly sexist tag in terms of the perceived need to boost the work of a very talented woman by comparing her to a man in the same field.

The Philly legal thrillers by Scottoline have always been warmer and funnier than the Grisham novels — the stories became almost as much about family and friendship as crime and passion.

The novelist started shaking things up early on with stand-alone legal thrillers, but over the years returned to Rosato & Associates 10 times which made Scottoline fans feel even closer to Mary DiNunzio, Judy Carrier, Anne Murphy and, of course, Bennie.

The writer kept the law firm books fresh by altering the perspective from book to book so that readers would wonder if the next one would be a new “Mary” or a “Bennie.”

A few years ago, Scottoline started taking big chances in stand-alone novels that moved away from crime and the law and into complex personal issues. She proved that suspense can be about much more than murder or a looming legal battle.

Last spring, the writer took a huge leap by writing from a male perspective for the first time. “Don’t Go” was a spectacular success, proving that Scottoline could write about any character who interested her.

Now, Scottoline is taking another chance — in terms of time and creative energy — by promising readers a Rosato & Associates book every fall, in addition to her spring stand-alone books.

“Accused” (St. Martin’s Press) was published yesterday, and the good news is that the book takes us back into the world of those much-loved female lawyers, but with all of the heightened sensitivity to family relationships and male-female relationships that have become a hallmark of the recent novels. Scottoline has pulled off the mean feat of delighting her longtime fans while also speaking to the new readers she gained from recent stand-alones such as “Save Me” and “Come Home.”

“Accused” has barely started when Mary DiNunzio faces two huge changes in her personal life — she is made a partner in Rosato & Associates and her live-in boyfriend asks her to marry him.

Mary is ambivalent on both scores — perhaps not yet ready for an equal partnership with the powerful and demanding Bennie, or ready to marry for the second time at such a crucial juncture in her professional life (Mary adores Anthony but her first husband was murdered and 1athe memory pains her every day).

Mary’s first case as partner could not be more complicated or troubling. She is hired by a teenage girl to reinvestigate the murder of her sister. A man was convicted after confessing to the crime and is in prison, but Allegra Gardner is sure someone else got away with murder.

Allegra’s family is rich and politically connected and the girl’s parents high-pressure Mary to drop the case. The girl’s obsession is just another expression of her emotional problems, the parents tell Mary, and will only do her further psychological harm.

This being a Lisa Scottoline novel, we know there is a lot more to this situation than meets the eye, and our concern for Allegra (and Mary) begins to escalate.

“Accused” mixes a deep and puzzling murder mystery with Mary’s fast-evolving roles as a lawyer, daughter, friend, and lover in a manner that never seems forced. The personal side of the narrative bolsters the professional tale of false criminal accusations and Scottoline once again pushes a book beyond any arbitrary genre restrictions.

Joe Meyers