Dirty Blonde

Dirty Blonde

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Dirty Blonde, now available in paperback, became an instant New York Times hardcover bestseller and jumped on all the way at #5. It is a riveting page-turner about sex and murder, which starts in the elite chambers of a sexy female judge and ends in the cold, gritty alleys of Philadelphia. Cate Fante is strong and smart, but when she gets appointed a federal judge, even she wonders whether she can do the job justice. After all, a job described in the United States Constitution would intimidate anybody. She’s only in her thirties, so she feels like she’s joining the world’s most exclusive retirement village. And she worries inwardly that she only looks the part, in a designer suit donned like overpriced armor. But Cate keeps her doubts a secret. And, as it happens, much else. For she leads a dark, double life that she hides from everyone, even her best friend. Then a high-profile case in her courtroom explodes into a shocking murder-suicide, and it blasts her cover wide open. Overnight, the tabloids tell her secrets, her boyfriend dumps her, and her new career hangs in tatters. But Cate’s troubles are only beginning. An enemy no one anticipated sends her running for her life-embarking on a journey that begins in the mystery of her childhood, where she first learned to lie. She’ll have to fight her way back to the truth, or die trying. Dirty Blonde is Lisa Scottoline’s most suspenseful and gripping thriller to date. Mixing poignancy with her trademark wit and wonderfully compelling characters, it showcases her remarkable talents as never before, and questions whether law and justice are always the same thing.

“Scottoline is a pro. She knows how to keep the pages turning. Most readers will be helpless to resist the pull of her galloping plot. Scottoline’s lucky 13th book is another winner.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“Lisa Scottoline has made Judge Fante and the rest of her characters fascinating, believable people. You can’t help liking Fante — and cheering for her. Judge Cate deserves to come back in a sequel or two. We could do with a bit more disorder in the court.”
St. Louis Post Dispatch

“In this intriguing tale marked by crisp dialogue, flashes of humor, and keenly observed narrative detail, Lisa Scottoline once again demonstrates why she is considered by many to be one of the best legal thriller novelists writing today.”
– Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA

“Compelling stand-alone…the fast pace and ever-increasing tension will keep readers turning the pages.”
Publishers Weekly

Dirty Blonde

By Lisa Scottoline


Cate Fante was the guest of honor at this celebration, which was drawing to a liquefied close. She raised a final snifter of cognac, joining the judges toasting her appointment to the district court. Tomorrow would be a slow day on the bench. The wheels of justice weren’t lubricated by Remy Martin.

“To Judge Cate Fante, our new colleague!” Chief Judge Sherman shouted, and the judges clinked glasses with a costly chime. Wrinkled cheeks draped their tipsy smiles, and their bifocals reflected the flickering candlelight. Their average age was sixty-two, and an appointment to the federal bench was for life. At thirty-nine, Cate felt like she was joining the world’s most exclusive retirement village.

“Speech, Speech!” the judges called out, their encouragement echoing in the private room. Golden light glowed from brass sconces, and coffee cooled next to scalloped half-moons of créme brulee and bread pudding veined with cinnamon. “Speech, Judge Fante!”

“Order in the court, you crazy kids,” Cate called back, rising with her glass and only apparent bravado. She managed a smile that masked her panic about what to say. She couldn’t tell the truth: namely, that she was secretly intimidated by a job described in the Constitution of the United States. Or that she only looked the part, in a Chanel suit of butterscotch tweed, donned like overpriced armor.

“Keep it short, Cate.” Judge William Sasso formed a megaphone with his hands. “It’s past my bedtime.”

Judge Gloria Sullivan chuckled. “Give her a break, Bill. We listen to you, and God knows what a trial that can be.”

“No, he’s right.” Cate gathered her nerve. “Thank you for this lovely dinner, everyone. You said a lot of nice things about me tonight, and I just want you to know — I deserve every single word.”

“At last, an honest judge!” Chief Judge Sherman burst into laughter, as did the others. The young waiter smiled, hovering by the wall. The judges clapped, shouting, “Way to go!” “Well done!”

“Thank you and good night.” Cate mock-bowed and caught the waiter’s eye, then looked away. She accepted the congratulations and goodbyes as the judges rose to leave, collecting their briefcases and bags. She grabbed her purse and they all walked to the door, filing out of the Four Seasons restaurant. On the way out, Cate felt a soft touch on her arm and turned to see Chief Judge Sherman, tall and stooped at her shoulder, his sterling silver hair slightly frizzy.

“Don’t look so happy, kiddo. You’re taking a major pay cut,”

Cate laughed. “Chief, you give fixed income a good name.”

Chief Judge Sherman laughed, as did Judge Jonathan Meriden, who fell into stride. Meriden was fifty-something, conventionally handsome, with sandy hair going to gray and a fit, if short, stature. Cate had legal history with Meriden. When they were both in practice, he’d tried a securities case against her and ended up losing the jury verdict and the client. Tonight he’d acted as if all was forgotten, so he’d sucked it up or warmed to her, with Glenlivet’s help. They walked out of the lobby into the humid, summer night, and Cate played the good hostess, waiting until everyone had dispersed to grab the last cab.

Inside, she leaned against the black vinyl as the cab lurched into light traffic. Its tires rumbled on the gritty streets, wet from an earlier thunderstorm. The air conditioning blew only faintly, and Cate eyed the rain-slick buildings like a stranger to the city. She’d lived in Philadelphia since law school, but her heart wasn’t in the city. She’d grown up in the mountains, from a small town erased from the map. Cate still felt a twinge at the thought, even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to care about her hometown anymore. She was pretty sure the official cutoff was fourth grade.

Cate’s head began to ache. Today she’d presided over opening arguments in her first major trial, a construction contract case with damages of fifty million dollars. Fleets of pricey lawyers from New York had filed special appearances, and the witness lists contained more PhDs than most colleges. It was a bench trial, with no jury to make the decision, but at least it was a civil case. Cate already sentenced four men to federal prison, which was four too many.

The cab was stifling, and Cate lowered the window. A breeze blew in, too sticky to offer any relief, and she unbuttoned the top of her silk blouse. She felt the weight of her pearls like a noose. The night sky was black and starless, and the full moon a spotlight. She leaned back against the seat but her chignon got in the way, so she loosened it with her fingers.

She looked idly out the window. Couples walked together, their arms wrapped around each other, their hips bumping. A handsome man in a white oxford shirt dashed across the street, his tie flying. The cab turned onto one of the skinny backstreets that scored Center City, no more than an alley with rusted blue Dumpsters lining the curb. Cate caught a whiff of the rotting smell. “The scenic route, huh?”

“It’s faster than South,” the driver said, and the cab slowed to a stop sign, waiting for someone to cross the street.

Cate eyed a rundown tavern on the corner. DEL & ROY’s flickered a failing neon sign, and graffiti blanketed its brick. Its side window was covered with plywood, though an amber glow emanated from yellow Plexiglas in the front door, which was the only indication the bar wasn’t abandoned.

It’s Miller time, Cate thought. The line from an old TV commercial. Her mother used to drink Miller. The champagne of bottled beer.

“I’ll get out here,” she said suddenly, digging in her purse for the fare.

“Here?” The driver twisted around on his side of the smudged plastic divider. “Lady, this ain’t the best block. I thought we were going to Society Hill.”

“Change of plans.” Cate slid a twenty from her wallet and handed it to him. Ten minutes later, she was perched on a wobbly barstool behind a glass of Miller. Lipstick stained the rim of her glass, a sticky red kiss slashed with lines, like vanity’s own fingerprint. It wasn’t her color, but she drank anyway.

The bar reeked of stale draft and Marlboros, and dusty liquor bottles cluttered its back underneath a cardboard cut-out of Donovan McNabb, set askew. The bar area doubled as a hallway to a closed dining room, its darkened doorway marked by an old-fashioned sign that read LADIES ENTRANCE. Cate looked away.

The bar was half-empty, and a man with dark hair hunched over a beer two seats from her, smoking a cigarette. He wore a white T-shirt that said C&C Towing, stretching in block letters across a muscular back. Three men sat beyond him, silently watching the baseball game, the Phillies playing San Francisco on a TV mounted above the bar. They watched with their heads tilted back, their bald spots an ellipsis.

Cate crossed her legs, bare in her brown pumps, and took a sip of warm beer. She hated herself for being here, and at the same time, wondered how long it would take. It wasn’t that she wanted to get home to sleep. She could function on almost none from a childhood interrupted by nighttime alarms. She’d be pulled from bed and dressed in a winter coat with an embroidered penguin, worn over a thin nightgown. The coat was turquoise and the penguin of raised black fuzz, she remembered now, for some reason. She had loved that coat.

“Hey,” said a voice beside her, and Cate looked over. It was the man in the T-shirt, with his beer and Marlboro. Up close, he had bloodshot blue eyes, heavy stubble, and hair that shone in greasy strands. He smiled drunkenly and asked, “How’re you, beautiful?”

Cate turned to him and smiled. “Evidently, beautiful.”

The man chuckled and set his beer on the bar, his cigarette trailing a snake of smoke. “I think I know you from somewhere,” he said, putting his hand on Cate’s bare knee. “Whas’ your name again?”

“Karen,” Cate told him, then moved his hand up onto her thigh.

Feeling thrilled and miserable, both at once.

2009© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.

Dirty Blonde

Questions for Book Clubs

  1. Okay, let’s get the important stuff up front. My hair is only fictionally blonde. Under all these chemicals, I am a dirty blonde. Do you think there are any real blondes over the age of 30? Do blondes really have more fun, or is that a function of advertisers getting us to by home-dye kits? (Like “Nice & Easy,” which I used for years in my starving-writer days. My hair looked great. In the front.)
  2. Now more serious. Do you like Cate as a character, despite her flaws? What are her flaws, as you see them? Was she really even doing anything wrong, or was it just a case of poor judgment? And let’s talk about sexism. Do you think that a man would have been as harshly punished for the same actions? Do you think she deserved what she got?
  3. Should judges, in general, be held to higher standards? Do you think a judge’s personal life and personal beliefs influence the way he or she rules from the bench, or do you trust that they will stick to the law? Is there a difference between federal and state judges in this regard, assuming that federal judges get lifetime appointments, but most state judges do not? Do you think judges should be elected rather than appointed? Are you really informed about the judges in your state? How many judges can you name on your state supreme court? On the United States Supreme Court?
  4. Moving onto justice and fiction, do you think Cate’s life was fair game for a TV show? Do you like the law shows that are “ripped form the headlines?” Why? Does TV cross the line when divulging the personal lives of public figures? Would you want to be famous and have the 24-hour scrutiny of the media? And isn’t Al Pacino just great? Also Tom Cruise? Who would you rather have join your book club?
  5. Do you think the ruling in the Marz case was just? Do you understand why Cate didn’t let the case go to the jury? Do you agree? Is justice always served by the law? Do you believe that Simone stole Marz’s idea, or was Marz just looking to make a quick buck? Do you think that Marz was crazy for quitting his job to follow his dream? Are you better off risking what you have to follow your dream, so win or lose, you at least tried? Or are you better off not taking the risk and giving up your dream, no matter what the greeting cards say?
  6. Do you know anyone with an autistic child? Why do you think there are so many more cases of autism? Do you think parents of children with special needs get the support they need? Do you think they have it tougher than parents of “normal” children?
  7. Have you ever heard of Centralia, PA? Can you even believe that a fire has been burning underground for 60 years? Why do you think the government hasn’t stepped in to contain this fire? Do you think the government worries more about the money than the health of the people?
  8. Were your surprised by the ending? Was justice served? Hot or cold?

The idea for Dirty Blonde grew from an unforgettable day years ago, when Lisa happened upon Centralia, a coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, which is the real-life site of a horrendous underground mine fire — that has burned for sixty years and burns even today! She didn’t know anything about the fire until fifteen years ago, when she drove through its smoky ruins and found herself engulfed in sulfurous steam. It was an impossibly eerie experience, and she always wanted to write about it. Last year she began to do the research, revisiting the town and reading everything she could about it.
Lisa Scottoline in Centralia

By way of background, Centralia and the surrounding Appalachian towns were one of the few places in the country that anthracite coal, which is especially hard, could be found. Anthracite began being mined in Centralia in the 1800s, so that by the 1900s, the town sat atop a beehive of mines, exploited by different companies and poachers. The mine fire that would eventually ruin Centralia started in 1962, in the landfill near St. Ignatius church, school, and cemetery. The Borough Council cleaned up for Memorial Day by burning the trash in the landfill, but unfortunately, a coal mine lay beneath. Flames must have fallen into the mine and set fire to the coal, and over the next several decades, state and federal governments lost chance after chance to put out the fire when it was still possible to do so. It rages out of control, even today, leading Centralia to be called “the poor man’s Dante’s Inferno.”

Her research started with an excellent book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire (1986), by David DeKok. This nonfiction account reads like a great detective story, owing to David’s skilled reporting and writing. However, nothing could compare to actually walking amongst the ruins of the town, seeing the sulfurous steam rising from cracks in the ground, and feeling the heat of the pavement despite the fact she visited in the middle of the winter. Lisa has included some pictures of her visit to Centralia, and some of David DeKok’s haunting before and after pictures of the once thriving mining town (see below). It is a place you won’t soon forget.