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
So much hype has surrounded Jilliane Hoffman's seven-figure, two-book deal with Putnam that it's easy to forget that she is a debut novelist. A long-time Assistant District Attorney in her hometown of Miami, Hoffman has impressive credentials as a prosecutor and advocate for sex crimes victims.
Despite her lack of experience as an author, readers will find that they can't put RETRIBUTION down, because its pacing is impeccable. Hoffman knows exactly when to stop a scene and keep a reader wondering what will happen next, and she also knows precisely when to introduce something new and different to take our minds of off the violence. The latter talent is key, because Hoffman's plot is filled with graphic crimes and scenes of violence against women (most of them, of course, young, beautiful and dead).
Chloe Larson is young, beautiful and very much alive, about to embark on a promising legal career and hoping to marry her stiff but ambitious boyfriend Michael, when she is brutally attacked one night in her apartment and left for --- you got it --- dead. We next meet Chloe --- now C.J. Townsend --- ten years and lots of therapy later, relocated to Florida and working as --- surprise! --- an Assistant District Attorney. When a suspect in a string of horrific serial murders winds up in the courtroom there, his voice sends Chloe into a tailspin, because she recognizes its British vowels as those of her own assailant.
Hoffman's "what if?" premise thus comes together: What if an attorney had the chance to prosecute someone on whom she wished to exact revenge? Hoffman handles several story threads deftly here, showing the toll that keeping secrets exacts on Chloe and on those who care about her, including Dom, the detective with a heart of gold and hands of velvet, while also detailing her inner struggle over whether to prosecute, or persecute.
Wait, there's more --- Chloe is also unsure whether or not this suspect, William Bantling, is also Cupid, the serial murderer whose grisly tableaux morts have the community up in arms and the media digging for clues (the same clues that may connect Chloe's past to her present). Those awful corpses may bother some female readers, but as Hoffman has pointed out that in order to make readers really care about people who are already dead, it's important to make them feel the suffering of those people --- there is a method to her mayhem.
Other elements that keep the ride going include a procedural matter gone awry that threatens to topple the case against Bantling, an interesting battle of wills between Chloe and Bantling's female attorney, and an ending that leaves more open to question than most thrillers do.
This debut novel is definitely flawed --- weaknesses abound in Hoffman's prose, from worn-out phrases like "mad and blinding rush" to predictable plot points, like the tall, dark and handsome police officer's short, fat and ethnic sidekick --- yet it is so ultimately satisfying as a read that it's little wonder Putnam realized they'd better sign a deal for Hoffman's next book before that one went for eight figures.
--- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub and Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 23, 2011