Eric Dinnocenzo’s The Tenant Lawyer—which received a starred review from Kirkus Indie, as well as a spot on Kirkus’ Best Indie Books of 2012 list—isn’t your typical tale of high-stakes litigation. There’s no murder, mistaken identity or sexual intrigue here. Instead, this practicing attorney’s debut novel follows Mark Langley, a Worcester, Mass.–based legal services lawyer, as he struggles to help low-income families in a system that seems rigged against them. When single mother Anna Rivera’s older, absent son faces a drug charge, the arrest jeopardizes the affordable public housing she depends on, as well as her younger son’s college scholarship, which is contingent upon Massachusetts residency.
“After I got out of law school and myself was a legal aid attorney, I was shocked at all the people who are brought into court on a regular basis,” Dinnocenzo says. “They just stand there—at the courts that I’ve been in—in narrow, cramped hallways, with a lot at stake. They typically don’t have representation. I saw what was going on in the housing court as something that has significance for our society but is not talked or written much about.” Like Langley’s clients, many people facing eviction are “overmatched or underrepresented or don’t have the resources to go up against more powerful adversaries,” Dinnocenzo says. “There is also a bias to those more powerful entities—eviction cases move very quickly through the system because the court recognizes that if someone stops paying rent or does something wrong in their apartment, the landlord has the right to get them out as soon as possible.”
Although his protagonist’s career and sense of duty resemble Dinnocenzo’s own professional experience, he says his story is “mostly imagined…though I have had cases involving innocent mothers or girlfriends being evicted from public housing because of their son’s or partner’s drug use.” It’s precisely Anna’s plight—and her sense of helplessness—that makes The Tenant Lawyer so compelling and sets it apart from scores of other legal thrillers.
That said, like fellow lawyer-turned-novelist John Grisham, Dinnocenzo has a familiarity with the law that allows him to delve into particulars when necessary, as well as the ability to explain them clearly without distracting from the narrative. With streamlined prose, Dinnocenzo wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter: the flaws of the housing court. But although the fate of Anna and her sons will certainly keep readers in suspense, The Tenant Lawyer is ultimately a story about the failures of justice.
Despite his book’s warm critical reception—it also got a write-up in his local neighborhood paper, the Landmark—Dinnocenzo says his decision to self-publish was motivated primarily by a desire to see his hard work come to fruition rather than a drive for commercial success. “I’ve thought about writing another novel,” he says, “but haven’t come up with a satisfying idea yet. I’m not sure if I’d use Mark Langley as the protagonist or another lawyer.…I like writing about the law, though, because I feel like you can hit the human elements of a work of fiction but also create an interesting plot—which is, of course, the trick.”