Why do so many of us snap up suspense and horror novels? Why are we often fascinated by the limitless devastation human beings are capable of? Because we have to know. Not need, not want, but have to know --- it's an absolute compulsion. A little boy named Billy Straight fights desperately to go it alone on the streets of Los Angeles --- and we cannot look away.
In the latest offering from Jonathan Kellerman, 12-year-old Billy is a runaway who witnesses a murder and is hunted by several parties. Initially unaware that he is being pursued, Billy continues to study (at the library) and avoids falling into a life of prostitution. Camping out in a 4,100 acre public park helps him survive.
Billy's life is complicated because the murder victim is the ex-wife of a television star. The famous couple divorced after an episode of domestic violence. The case draws a lot of media interest as it is compared to the O. J. Simpson case. The LAPD is under a lot of pressure to find some clues and the only evidence they find leads to Billy.
The story is told in short alternating chapters and from three perspectives: Billy's troubled life; the villains (the murderer and those out to get Billy); and the investigation through the eyes of the police detectives and people connected to the television star. This narrative structure allows readers to gain a thorough understanding of each of the players and their motivations. The story is fleshed out even more by several characters who don't join the action until the very end of the book.
Billy is the most compelling character, because he is in constant danger. You may be tempted to skip over other chapters to follow his story, but try and restrain yourself. There are so many twists and turns in this story that you'll have to go back and read the chapters again if you skip them. Kellerman's depiction of street life on Los Feliz and Hollywood Boulevards is alarming. Skulking in the shadows Billy sees things that would shock anyone. It's sad to think about how many children we walk past in a day without ever considering what they might be enduring just to survive. But Billy is a smart kid and he understands who to trust and where to find safety. He doesn't have many options, but he learns to avoid hookers, addicts, gangs, and most adults.
Even a smart kid trying to stay honest and honorable can't stay safe forever on his own. After a run-in with an elderly couple --- pedophiles who attempt to rape Billy --- the park is no longer a safe place to hide. With no possessions and no money, he heads west toward the ocean.
Meanwhile, new Detective Petra Connor is trying to identify and find her witness. Pressure from higher ups to produce information and satisfy the media frustrates her and her partners. To further complicate matters, her partner, Stu, is going through a personal crisis and isn't there to guide her. Haunted by her own past, Petra is extremely lucky to find someone who knows Billy by sight. Unfortunately, her boss, anxious about the media, releases Billy's picture with a $25,000 reward for information leading the police to him. From that moment, the race is on.
Everyone is looking for the young boy: the police, his mother's boyfriend --- who caused him to run away in the first place, and the murderer. Unaware of the danger he is in, Billy finds a kind soul when he breaks into a synagogue looking for food. Sam Ganzer hides Billy in his house. But Billy has already been seen by one especially greedy character.
Full of commentary on crime, American justice, racism, debauchery and the mistreatment of children, BILLY STRAIGHT touches on controversial subjects, old and new. It makes you wonder just how much it would take to force a person to leave home if they had nowhere else to go. In the end, you won't get any easy answers. Billy doesn't live happily ever after, but he ends up alive.
As for the murderer, he advances on Billy slowly and we are constantly guessing at his identity. It's impossible to be sure. The evidence is stacked so clearly against one man, but is that just a ploy? You'll have to read the book to find out.
Reviewed by Sofrina Hinton on October 5, 1999