RETRIBUTION is not revenge. The folks at the Oxford American Dictionary define "retribution" as a punishment considered to be morally right and fully deserved. Note that "justice" is not included in the equation. Given this definition, Jilliane Hoffman's fine first novel is perfectly titled.
RETRIBUTION begins in New York City in 1988. Chloe Larson, a recent law school graduate, is preparing for the bar examination while maintaining a relationship that seems to be bringing her as much disappointment as fulfillment. Her life is forever changed, however, by a sexual assault that leaves her physically and psychologically maimed. Traumatized and devastated, Larson is unable to deal with the bar examination, while her boyfriend, who is sympathetic but not empathetic, lacks the emotional character to help her heal and finds solace elsewhere.
Larson ultimately experiences a psychological breakdown; as part of her recovery over the next twelve years she changes her hairstyle and color, and fashion sense. She transforms herself into C.J. Townsend; it is now 2000, and Townsend is a tough, hardworking assistant chief attorney in the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's office. She finds herself involved in a major case that will have significant personal and professional repercussions for her. For the past 18 months, a serial killer dubbed by the news media as "Cupid" has terrorized the Dade County area. Eleven local women have gone missing, only to be discovered months later, horribly mutilated and murdered, their bodies found in deserted, out of the way locations. The police catch a break when, during a routine traffic stop, the body of yet another missing woman is discovered in the trunk of a car belonging to a wealthy import salesman named William Bantling.
Townsend handles the high-profile prosecution herself. When Bantling speaks in court, however, Townsend is horrified to realize that Bantling is, in fact, the man who raped and maimed her over a decade before. The realization places Townsend in a moral dilemma: she should, from an ethical standpoint, recuse herself from Bantling's prosecution for murder. If she proceeds and her "relationship," as it were, with Bantling is revealed, he might well be freed on a technicality. Yet the statute of limitations with respect to Bantling's rape of Townsend expired several years before. Prosecuting Bantling, and obtaining his conviction, may well be Townsend's last opportunity to obtain retribution.
This book raises ethical issues with real-world ramifications. Hoffman's ability to subtly play upon the inherent contradictions within the legal system --- too often, those seeking justice are better served in theology school --- is absolutely first-rate, and her ability to clearly delineate the personalities of even her minor players will undoubtedly cause envy among more experienced authors. Oh, and let's not forget the conclusion. Surprise follows surprise. Part of it is, perhaps, predictable. Part of it, most definitely, is not.
RETRIBUTION is an impressive debut from an author who writes like a seasoned journeyman. This novel, which may well be this year's PRESUMED INNOCENT, is simply not to be missed.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub