Q: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you begin practicing law?

A: When I was born the practice of law was entirely a man’s profession and – particularly in Missouri – women didn’t enter into the practice. My father was a lawyer, but I guarantee that when my three sisters were growing up he never said, “You’re going to law school, and you’re gonna practice law”.

But by the time I graduated from undergrad in 1978, the law was just beginning to open up for women in Missouri. When I got out of law school and got my JD, I came back to my hometown, the Ozarks in Southwest Missouri. When I came back I was one of the first handful of women practicing law in the southern half of the state of Missouri. I was the only one in felony prosecution because when I came back, I went to the Greene County Prosecutor’s office and was the only woman working in that capacity. Since I was the only woman, they gave me a whole lot of cases of violent sexual crimes that were committed against women and children. I handled rape cases, domestic violence, statutory rape, child abuse and it was brutal education: this was the community I had grown up with. I was looking at the seamy underbelly of my community through a magnifying glass. It was a tremendously shocking experience


Q: How did you begin writing fiction?

 A: I practiced law for 15 years and then I taught law at the Missouri State University in Springfield for 15 years. Back when I was first starting at the prosecutor’s office. I was handling these terrible terrible cases involving children. At the time, when I was 25, I thought, “God I need to write a book about this”. But I never picked up the pen until about 30 years had passed and that’s when I wrote my first novel, which is the Code of the Hills. It’s about a young female prosecutor handling a terrible, terrible sex case and that’s where it began. Code of the Hills was picked up by HarperCollins, who made the Ozark Mysteries Series and I wrote four books with them, and then I began co-authoring legal thrillers with James Patterson. Now I have this new book, Renegade, which comes out this March.


Q: What books did you like growing up? Did you read mysteries and thrillers?

A: When I was a kid, I loved Nancy Drew. I read all the Nancy Drew books, I thought she was so cool. She would place herself in peril in order to make sure she solved the mystery. And she was driving around in that convertible when she did it, which was so cool. As a kid I was also a faithful reader of the Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazine, so that was an influence as well. My favorite game was clue (and I was really good at it).

At age 12, I read Jane Eyre for the first time. Jane Eyre – in addition to being a fabulous gothic thriller – was a feminist novel: it had a feminist female heroine. It was so incredible that Bronte created that hero at the time because she had tremendous obstacles to overcome but she battled through using her wits and she didn’t rely on her books. Let me tell you: in the books they had for us to read growing up, mostly they were relying on their looks, not their wits. It was an incredible experience to read a novel about a young woman who was a feminist before her time.

As a kid and still today, I always wanted to read books that provided me with a strong female character. As a child, they were much more limited in number than books starring boys. To this day, there are a lot more books about men than there are about women. That’s really true too in the thriller genre. Men have dominated the thriller genre forever. I do think progress is being made, though. In psychological thrillers particularly, women are making great strides. In legal thrillers, women are still underrepresented but I’m doing the best I can. I do think the publishing world is opening up and I do think we’re making strides.


Q: Tell me a little about your upcoming book, Renegade.Renegade

A: Renegade is a thriller about a young assistant DA in Manhattan. When the book opens Kate Stone has just lost a jury trial, where a man has been charged with assault. This is a trial that Kate was really invested in. Immediately after she loses the trial, Kate gets into an argument with the criminal defendant on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, and she ends up punching him out. It’s satisfying at the moment, but she gets in trouble with her boss for it. Her boss says that – as a condition of her employment  –she has to enter into anger management treatment. She joins this support group, but the group she ends up in is not a traditional anger management support group. Instead, she ends up in a circle of people who want to create justice in situations where the court system has failed. She’s in a support group that’s essentially “Vigilante’s Anonymous”. That leads to a great deal of excitement and consequences she did not predict.


Q: Was this story based on any experiences you had as a prosecutor?

A: I was able to utilize the experiences I had as a prosecutor. Anyone who has had true experience as a trial attorney has both won cases and lost cases. If you meet someone who claims to be a trial lawyer who has “never lost a case”, that person is either a liar or a coward. If you go to trial, you win some and you lose some – no matter how invested you are in your work. I have lost cases that I was passionately invested in, cases I really and truly believed in. So I know how it feels when it all falls through. Though I have never taken the law into my own hands (I do not believe in vigilantism at all) I was able to understand Kate’s motivation.


Q: The book deals intimately with people who feel abandoned by the criminal justice system: what do you think is the cause for all the mistrust in the system that we have?

A: Theoretically, we have the greatest justice system in the world. But in reality, it often doesn’t work out the way that it’s supposed to. I think we actually have 3 separate justice systems. One is for people in the middle class. When people in the middle class are accused of crimes, we go out and we hire counsel. Our counsel energetically represents us and the outcome is generally just.

There is a separate justice system for poor people. The poor are railroaded: they don’t obtain justice in our court system. First of all they don’t have a basic understanding and education in how the courts work. In addition, you gotta have representation. Even though the 6th amendment of the constitution says that they’re entitled to counsel and we have a public defender system that’s supposed to provide that, they don’t get the counsel they need.

Our public defender system is broken. The reason is money: our state legislatures refuse to adequately fund it. They will not fund our public defender system to hire attorneys to represent all the people accused of crimes. So you’ve got these few lawyers shouldering more cases and clients than they can even reach. For these people, no one is ever invested in a case on their behalf, no one has taken the time to provide an adequate defense.

And it leads to unjust results. In addition, there’s a third justice system in the US and it’s for the rich and it does not operate at all. If people have enough money they are not held accountable for their crimes at all: rich people don’t pay taxes and rich people don’t go to prison. They usually aren’t taken to trial or even charged with a crime because they are so insulated by money. We have three justice systems and two of them don’t work and that’s why people are disenchanted.


Q: Renegade is set in New York – and of course, all these problems you’re describing are nationwide problems. Is there a reason you chose to set the novel in New York rather than in the Ozarks where you’ve set past novels?

A: For half a century, I have had a love affair for New York City. I was 16 years old when I first went to New York City. When I say I was 16, I mean that I had never been anywhere. I lived in Springfield, Missouri, which is the queen city of the Ozarks, but at the time when I was 16 the tallest structure was the grain elevator.

I got on a bus to New York and they dropped us off at 8th avenue and 42nd street. This was 1972, 42nd Street was the red light district. Talk about culture shock! I loved it. I’d never seen anything like it. It was so much cooler than the grain elevator. It was the most profound experience. That week I got standing room tickets for the original production of Grease. I went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw Salome. When I left I promised I would be back. New York is my favorite city and I have spent a tremendous amount of time there – as much as a person can who’s just taking vacations. And so I thought it would be tremendously fun to set a book in New York City.


Q: One final question: what is something about the criminal justice system that you wish more people knew?

A: I taught for 15 years. And there’s this thing I would encounter in the classroom or on social media that I want to talk about:  I’m a great believer in the US constitution. Particularly, portions of the constitution which provide protections to people accused of crimes. One of the greatest is our guarantee of due process in the 5th amendment. It says that the government cannot deprive you of life, liberty or property without due process, which means you get a trial. You are guaranteed the right to have a trial. But people forget that. So what I would see with students or on social media when there was a terrible crime was people would say that they need to lock the accused person up and throw away the key. And then there would come a trial, and people would invariably say, “What do you mean he gets to have a trial? We all know he did it! Why would we let him have a trial?” What they need to remember is that it’s the constitution that says this individual is entitled to a trial. These protections apply to all of us. That’s what I want to remind people when social media goes crazy and calls for someone’s head.


About Nancy Allen

New York Times #1 Best Selling author, Nancy Allen practiced law for fifteen years as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks, trying over thirty jury cases. She served on the faculty of Missouri State University for fifteen years, teaching law classes. She is the author of the Ozarks Mystery series. With James Patterson, Nancy is co-author of New York Times Bestseller Juror #3 (2018) and The Jailhouse Lawyer (2021). Nancy is currently working with Patterson on their third novel. In 2022, the first book in her new Anonymous Justice series, Renegade, will be released.