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PICTURE OF GUILT, A
by Libby Fischer Hellmann
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2003
313 pages
$24.95
ISBN: 1590580737


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sometimes, in this less than perfect world, doing "the right thing" can ruin one's day. Ellie Forman finds this out the hard way. She steps forward during the murder trial of Johnny Santoro, on trial for killing his girlfriend, when she realizes that she has a videotape with Johnny on it, a videotape which makes it very, very unlikely that he killed Mary Jo Bosanick. Santoro's attorney doesn't seem ecstatic about the news, but puts Ellie on the stand, where she is promptly made to look like an idiot by the prosecutor. Santoro is convicted. Then Ellie's prospective clients stop returning her calls; one friend who does talk to her says that the problem is one of perception, that Ellie had "released video that technically didn't belong to you. . . . initiated it . . . overstepped your boundaries. It's a bad precedent."

Sometime shortly after the trial, Mary Jo's friend Rhonda Disapio trails Ellie to a mall and confesses that she was with Mary Jo the night of the murder; that Johnny didn't do it, and that she was too scared to testify about what really happened. That night, Rhonda is killed. Ellie goes back to Johnny's lawyer, Chuck Brashares, and tells him everything Rhonda told her, suggesting that this will help with an appeal. Brashares reminds her (and this I thought Ellie should have known, considering the fact that her father and her ex-husband were/are lawyers) that "you can't raise new facts on appeal". Then, a few days later, Johnny's lawyer is killed. Rather than deterring Ellie from further investigating, this sequence of events prods her to find out what really happened. Even getting locked into a room at work and having the building be set on fire doesn't convince Ellie to leave well enough alone.

Out of nowhere, with a possible connection to her boyfriend's newest client, a Saudi petrochemical sheik named Abdul Al Hamarani, she is offered a job by Great Lakes Oil. There is talk of sending her to Denver to make a video about extracting oil from shale. Ellie is delighted to bid on this job. As one might expect, there are connections between this job and everything else going on in Ellie's life; all is not as it seems.

Of course, Ellie has a life outside of work. She is having some problems with her 13-year-old daughter Rachel, who is pushing any boundary, any button she can reach: breaking curfew, drinking, changing the radio buttons in the Volvo, and so forth. Her father is still a big part of Ellie's life, although he has "met someone" who may become a part of his life. Ellie still bounces ideas and problems off her father, although she doesn't always tell him everything (and what daughter does?). Ellie's relationship with David Linden, a director of foreign currency trading for a Philadelphia bank, has encountered some turbulence, not unusual in a long-distance relationship. He is uncomfortable with her risk-taking; she feels constrained by his concerns for her safety. He suggests they "take a breather", which sets Ellie up nicely for the romantic conflict in the book.

Ellie thinks the Mafia is connected to Johnny Santoro and all the killings. She confronts a former Mob leader, now retired, and asks that she be left alone, since whatever it is they think she knows, she doesn't know or doesn't know that she knows it. He denies all knowledge, but a few days later Ellis is out walking when Vinny suggests she go for a ride with him. Turns out Vinny drives for Dominick Morelli, "one of the leading figures in the Chicago outfit", and Dom wants to tell Ellie that 1) she shouldn't bother old men and 2) whatever is going on, it isn't "connected". Then the FBI shows up, wanting to know why she's out riding with Dom Morelli.

Special Agent Nick Lejeune is a smooth-talking Cajun who is definitely interested in Ellie outside the boundaries of the job. She is attracted to him; the things about David which make Ellie uncomfortable are not there in Nick. Will the attraction outlast the case? Will this possible new relationship push yet another wedge between Rachel and Ellie?

I have only two quibbles, one medium large and one fairly small. Ellie, in the course of the novel, is in many kinds of danger . . . and keeps on going. She is a single mom, with a young daughter. I didn't get a sense that Ellie gave Rachel much consideration when she was thinking about what to do next - never thought after the fire about what would have happened to Rachel without her, never called the police about all the times she thought the green SUV was following her/them, never gave serious consideration to the fact that somebody was killing people connected to the Johnny Santoro trial (Rhonda and Chuck) and who might be next on the list. Even when her ex-husband threatens her with a possible change in Rachel's living arrangements, Ellie doesn't step back and reconsider. She just goes on putting herself in danger. And we never do find out if Johnny Santoro gets out of jail, even though we do know what really happened the night that Mary Jo Bosanick was killed.

Ms. Hellmann has another winner here, not always a given after a great first novel like An Eye For Murder. The last few chapters made me want to read even faster, to find out what was going to happen next - even though I knew (this being only the second in a series) that the potential disaster wouldn't/couldn't happen. I still had to keep reading. I look forward to the next Ellie Forman.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, May 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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