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by Libby Fischer Hellman
Bleak House, April 2008
396 pages
ISBN: 1932557679

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I'm not sure about the title. There is precious little innocence in the book but there's enough guilt to cover the entire North Shore of Chicago, where the novel is set. I've always thought of Wilmette, Illinois (where I've spent a lot of time) as a pleasant, middle class suburb with pockets of wealth (Scott Turow lives there), but in Hellman's hands, it's a hotbed of lies and treachery.

At an initiation ceremony in a forest preserve near Wilmette, high school student Sara Long's head is covered with a bucket filled with dead fish. Then someone bludgeons her to death.

An autistic young man, Cam Johnson, witnesses the murder of the woman he thinks of as "a princess." Because he is found standing over the body holding a bloody bat, he is the natural and only suspect. Cam is also a registered sex offender. He was once observed masturbating in the forest by a couple who reported the incident. Though he hurt no one, he is forever stigmatized.

Cam's sister, Ruth, hires Georgia Davis, a new PI on suspension from the local police force, to prove Cam's innocence. She begins by investigating the victim, who seems to have been living well beyond her modest means. Not from a wealthy family, Sara worked in a bookstore/cafe, where she could hardly have made enough money to support her high-end wardrobe. Ultimately, Georgia discovers the source of Sara's income - prostitution.

The story of the prostitution ring is chilling. Derek Janowitz ( a second murder victim) is a pimp and Lauren Walcher a young madam. The hookers are all high school age and are lured with promises of iPods and fancy clothes. Lauren explains her business to Georgia with a certain pleasure in her entrepreneurial skills. The young women are recruited at the best malls, and the johns are mostly family men who, according to Lauren, are not being sexually satisfied at home. The enterprise is so carefully set up that the executives from Fortune 500 companies could learn a thing or two from its organization.

Georgia is an intriguing and complex character. At times she brims with confidence, at others she shows an endearing vulnerability. Hellman is at her best in drawing the cadre of young high school students and painting a non-judgmental picture of Lauren, though Georgia keeps reminding her that what she is doing is illegal - something that bothers Lauren not a whit. The twists in the plot are very well contrived, with enemies turning to allies and an ending that is both satisfactory and totally unexpected.

Reviewed by Mary Elizabeth Devine, April 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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