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A Decade Of Preparation: Michele Martinez Has Plenty Of Story Ideas From Her Days As Prosecutor

By HELEN UBINAS, Courant Staff Writer

March 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

It's Michele Martinez's own fault that I'm pressing her about the basis for the characters in her debut novel.

If she hadn't made them so convincing, maybe I wouldn't be having trouble buying that her protagonist, Melanie Vargas, who shares Martinez's heritage and, until recently, her job, isn't some veiled alter ego. Or that the sadistic killer in "Most Wanted" (Morrow, $23.95) isn't some real-life bad guy she put away as a federal prosecutor in New York City.

And perhaps the most disappointing revelation - that the book's yummy FBI agent Dan O'Reilly isn't some real-life hottie walking around the Big Apple somewhere. I'm married, I tell her, but if there's an O'Reilly out there, I have a bunch of single friends who should know.

"I know, isn't he great?" says Martinez, laughing. "I'm totally in love with him."

But she insists it's all - mostly - fiction. Unlike Melanie, her heroine, who's juggling a daughter, a demanding job and a deteriorating marriage, 42-year-old Martinez lives happily with her lawyer husband and two boys in New York. And while she has met her share of bad guys in the courtroom, she's never had to face down a killer in a burned-out basement with a nine-millimeter in her hand.

"Thank God," she says.

The best she gives me is that O'Reilly's cadence comes from a cop she used to work with. And that he'll be back in the second installment of the Melanie Vargas thriller series, which, incidentally, was completed even before the first one hit book stores in late February. It was also selected as a Book Sense Pick for March and will be published in Spanish in the States and Puerto Rico in November under the title "Se Busca."

Makes sense that so far her entrée into the book world has been this smooth, since Martinez literally dreamed most of the first chapter of "Most Wanted." The dream, about a fire in a townhouse that killed a handsome, silver-haired lawyer who may have been leading a double life, answered a question she'd been asking herself for years: Could she put all the knowledge she had gained as a prosecutor for nearly a decade to use if she left her job to raise her children?

"I wanted to give my all to my job, and I wanted to give my all to my family, and it just wasn't happening," she said.

After five years of juggling diapers and dockets, she finally decided it was time to stop working as a prosecutor. So she headed to a little office next to her kitchen on the Upper East Side and created Melanie Vargas, a prosecutor who walks into the case of a lifetime while taking her baby daughter on an evening stroll to try to get her to sleep.

The headline-grabbing case of a brutal Park Avenue murder is exactly what Vargas needs to boost her career and to take her mind off of her cheating husband - if only she can avoid becoming the killer's next target and figure out if the hard-to-resist O'Reilly is a good guy or a bad guy.

While Martinez is clear that character and creator aren't the same, she admits they share some traits. Like Martinez, Vargas is half-Puerto Rican, comes from modest roots but has an Ivy League education and an intense ambitious streak. That similarity especially gave a particular authenticity to her main character, whom Martinez describes in the book as someone "who'd come up so far in the world that she didn't fit in her own life."

Martinez grew up in a tough neighborhood in New Haven before her family moved to Ellington when she was 13. Her father worked in the education department at the Somers state prison. Her mother was a secretary.

Education was paramount in her household, which is why the family sacrificed to send her to Loomis Chaffee, a private school in Windsor. There was some scholarship money, she says, but that still left a hefty balance.

"I'm still not sure how they managed to pay for that," she says.

Her father, born in Puerto Rico during the Depression, was the son of a teenage mother and a plantation cigar roller. Her mother, who now lives in Wallingford, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in Connecticut. Both believed hard work would lead to success - a belief they passed on to their daughter and son, a commercial airline pilot.

After Loomis, Martinez attended Harvard University, where she says she most vividly had that feeling of being an outsider.

"It was a wonderful school, obviously, but on a personal level, I was always struggling to find my way." she says. "I think that's something a lot of people go through because of their ethnicity or economic standing - struggle when you become a professional and realize that you're in a very different world."

She entered that different world when, after Stanford Law School, she clerked for a federal judge and landed a high-paying position at a fancy Manhattan law firm. By all accounts, she had made it, but she yearned for a job that fed the desire for public service instilled by her father, who died in 1994.

"I dedicated my book to my dad because I feel like what I have achieved in my life is due in very significant part to him," she says.

Her father, Gerson Martinez Campbell, attended the University of Connecticut on the G.I. Bill, majoring in business, after serving in the Air Force. But his heart was always in the community, Martinez said, which is why he founded a company that trained welfare recipients to do small-parts machining for the aerospace industry.

"He felt very strongly that he should give back to the community because he felt very fortunate to have received an education," she said. "He instilled that ideal in me and impressed upon me how fortunate I was and how many advantages I had."

So it only made sense that she left and became an assistant U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, specializing in narcotics cases that she said included Mexican cocaine cartels loading as much as $50 million in cash at a time into tractor trailers, Burmese warlords controlling hundreds of kilos of heroin, and local kingpins operating massive crack and heroin supermarkets on city streets.

Her time there gave her more than enough information for her first book, and probably for as many more as she wants to add to the series.

She still researches settings and experiences she's not familiar with, such as what it would feel like for Melanie Vargas to pull a trigger when the gun chamber's empty.

For that, she had to call a friend.

But there's no research necessary when it comes to her heroine. The details of their lives may be different, but Melanie's foundation isn't far from Michele's.

"I think when you're in a different world, you have to really work on your self-esteem and self-confidence," she says. "I think you see in the book that Melanie tries to do that, even though she juggling so much. She tries to have faith, just like I try to have faith in myself."

And that's exactly what it took, a leap of faith, to write a book - though not as much as you might think. Long before Martinez learned how to tell a good story in front of a jury, she had a summer job during high school at the Windsor Journal, where her duties included compiling the crime blotter. She was also co-editor in chief of the Loomis Chaffee Log her senior year.

So of course, when she tells me that her next book, due out next year, involves murder, drug dealing and intrigue at a New York City prep school, I have to ask.

"No, not Loomis Chaffee," she laughs. "That was a very wholesome place, a great experience." And then, in a conspiratorial tone: "Nothing like what goes on in the school in my next book."

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