PRETTY LITTLE THINGS is a bit of a change of pace for Jilliane Hoffman. While her first three novels would be classified most accurately as courtroom or legal thrillers, her latest is at its core a police procedural, one that turns a laser-point focus on the nightmare of every parent: a child who disappears.
The book is set in Hoffman's familiar south Florida environs of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but introduces a new protagonist: Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Special Agent Bobby Dees. Nicknamed "The Shepherd," Dees is in charge of the FDLE Crimes Against Children Squad, and due to a combination of dogged determination and finely honed instinct, he has the ability to find missing children --- either living or dead --- and bring them home. Despite nationwide publicity regarding his abilities, though, Dees has experienced a fall from grace. His superiors feel he is getting burned out on his job; worse, the disappearance of Katy, his own daughter, for almost one year remains his most heartbreaking and perplexing case.
Things do not fully come to a head until 13-year-old Lainey Emerson goes missing after supposedly being out with friends. Lainey is initially dismissed as another of the hundreds of runaway children who leave home without notice every year from the Miami area. But Dees suspects otherwise, and his investigation leads him to believe that Lainey is the victim of an online predator. His suspicions are proven true when the abductor, who comes to be known as "Picasso," starts leaving evidence of other abductions with a local television station, leading to the bodies of Picasso's victims. It soon becomes clear that Picasso is taunting Dees, who in turn must confront the very real possibility that this is the person behind Katy's disappearance and that the next body he dumps may well be hers.
Picasso continues to ratchet up the taunting. And just when Dees and the police feel they may have brought his South Florida reign of terror to an end, they find that things are about to get much worse for South Florida, particularly for Dees. Any resolution of the case will be bittersweet at best if he is able to save every child but his own.
Hoffman, who has demonstrated the ability to bring chills in hot climates ever since her debut, RETRIBUTION, really pulls out the stops here. Be warned: Picasso is a frightening character, and the methodology he employs to taunt the police and Dees is off-kilter and nightmarish, to say the least. Dees is a protagonist who Hoffman hopefully will reprise in a future novel. Grim, dedicated, bull-headed and fiercely driven, he is precisely the guy you would want to have searching for your missing daughter. Hoffman also infuses Picasso with a grim believability; if you're not currently sealing your daughter into her room with barbed wire each night, you'll consider it after reading PRETTY LITTLE THINGS. And you'll definitely be looking at her computer history.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 3, 2011