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Interview Wed Nov 04 2015
The most interesting investigator in Chicago's strong tradition of crime fiction isn't a detective, a lawyer, or even a journalist. Mark Angelotti, the wisecracking protagonist of Lynne Raimondo's Dante series, is a blind psychiatrist turned expert legal witness. Instead of Michael Harvey and Sara Paretsky's blue-collar gumshoes, Angelotti is an eloquent, overeducated mix between Matthew Murdock (Netflix's "Daredevil") and Will Graham (NBC's "Hannibal").
Angelotti's third mystery in Dante's Dilemma (after Dante's Wood and Dante's Poison) takes him to the South Side, where a professor infamous for pushing a misogynistic brand of sociology has been found murdered on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park during the annual scavenger hunt. The chief suspect: his estranged wife, Rachel Lazarus, who supposedly suffered a long history of domestic violence at the professor's hands.
Angelotti's called by the prosecution to interview Lazarus, because her defense's claim — Battered Woman Syndrome — isn't taken seriously by psychiatrists. "That's not to say battered women can't be traumatized — and sometimes severely so — just that there are better ways of looking at the problem," says Angelotti. "PTSD is one of them, along with other, more generalized anxiety disorders."
The twists and turns that follow explore the plight of battered women from all socio-economic backgrounds, an issue close to Raimondo's heart. Before becoming a writer, Lynne Raimondo was the general counsel (read: "top lawyer") at the Illinois Department of Revenue, and now she volunteers at a battered women's shelter in Chicagoland.
I spoke with Raimondo about how she portrays the city of Chicago so well, the University of Chicago, domestic violence, and the future of the Dante series.
You're very precise about Chicago geography in the book, using real locations and street names instead of generic backdrops. Why? Is a hyper-specific approach to setting important to you?
I approach setting in my writing pretty much the same way I approach character development. Details are what make a character come alive for the reader, and I think the same is true of places. Geography is one way of creating a strong sense of place. You couldn't write about New York, for example, without knowing it has five boroughs. Chicago occupies a single land mass, but the differences between its North and South sides, and even from one neighborhood to the next, can be striking. I want Chicagoans who read my work to smile at the inside references to things like the pedway and the architectural monstrosity that is now Soldier Field. But I also want readers who've never been here before to feel like I've given them a good glimpse into the city.
Do you ever do "field research" in the city to help create a sense of place with specific and sensory details?
Absolutely. I view "field research" as required homework. It helps me visualize a location while I'm writing. It also helps me understand a location in a non-visual way, which I need to do because my protagonist, Mark Angelotti, is blind. For obvious reasons, I don't walk around with my eyes closed, but I do try to pay attention to things like sounds and smells. This is a great exercise for all writers, by the way. Still, I sometimes forget exactly where I've been. In my second novel, Dante's Poison, I have my protagonist crossing the Randolph Street bridge when from the description it has to be one bridge over. When I realized the mistake, I had a good laugh.
With over 80 colleges in the Chicago area, what drew you to the University of Chicago for this particular story?
Two of my kids graduated from U of C, and I spent a year as a visiting student at the law school, so I felt I knew the campus well. I was also drawn to the university's intellectual atmosphere, which places a premium on exceptionalism and free-thinking. Then too, the architecture of the campus — all those Gothic buildings overhung with gargoyles — just seemed to cry out for a murder mystery.
You do a marvelous job capturing the essence of a Chicago winter. Why did you choose that season instead of the warmer months?
The main reason was chronology. The first two books in the Mark Angelotti series take place in the spring and fall, and the events in Dante's Dilemma follow closely in time thereafter. But I also thought the extreme conditions of a Chicago winter would add atmosphere and menace to the book. In a way, winter becomes another antagonist that my hero must battle to stay alive.
Domestic violence against women is obviously an international issue, but in your experience, are there particular challenges specific to Chicago? What made you decide to explore the problem in this novel?
I don't think domestic violence is a bigger (or smaller) problem in Chicago than elsewhere. In fact, one of the things I wanted to get across is its universality. We tend to think of domestic violence as being more of an issue for low income families, but it exists at every social level, and in some ways, abusive relationships are harder to escape for women in well-off communities. Everyone assumes they can simply walk away, but it's not that easy — physically, emotionally or financially. Exploding myths like these was a major reason I chose to write about the subject in Dante's Dilemma.
You're a lawyer with an impressive corporate and civic resume. Why make your protagonist a psychiatrist?
In a nutshell, I didn't want to write another legal thriller. So many other authors have done it before and much better than I could hope to. At the same time, I wanted to use my legal background in some way. This led me to the idea of crafting a series around an expert witness. Once I'd made that decision, the choice of a psychiatrist was easy because so many of the most interesting and controversial issues in criminal law revolve around mental impairment. In my first novel, Dante's Wood, I explored the subject from the angle of a developmentally disabled teenager, and in Dante's Dilemma, a battered woman. In both cases, I hoped to get readers thinking about to the extent to which individuals in that position are truly responsible for their acts.
Why did you give your protagonist the last name Angelotti? Does it hold some special meaning?
The name suggested itself when I was lucky enough to score tickets to a performance of Tosca at the Lyric Opera House. Cesare Angelotti is a secondary character in the opera, a political refugee with republican sentiments who is fleeing from the police. Eventually he kills himself because he believes he is responsible for his friend's capture and torture. In that sense, his guilt mirrors my protagonist's. And I liked the name as a play on words, since Mark Angelotti is certainly no angel.
Are you working on another Dante novel? What can you tell us about it? Any specific locales like the University of Chicago this time?
Yes, but I may be disappointing some Chicago fans here. In my next novel, tentatively titled Dante's Regret, Mark Angelotti is back on the East Coast trying to regain custody of his son when he receives a summons from an old friend and father figure, Giorgio Ferraris. Well into his nineties, nobody expects Ferraris to live forever, but Mark is shocked when Ferraris dies suddenly, right after giving Mark a diary written by his father. The diary describes the senior Angelotti's experiences during World War II when he and Ferraris were being held as Italian POWs on Staten Island. Mark sets out to investigate Ferraris' death, only gradually discovering that the diary holds a dangerous secret. So my home town of Staten Island will play a major role in the book. But I think it's only fair to say that Mark isn't done with Chicago yet!