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Onyx reviews: Billy Straight by Jonathan Kellerman

Alex Delaware has carried the load of being the hero in twelve of Jonathan Kellerman's previous thirteen novels and with Billy Straight he is taking a much-needed vacation. He does peek in for a moment near the end to see how everything is going in his absence. Everything is going just fine.

Billy Straight is the story of a twelve-year-old homeless boy who is witness to a brutal murder late at night in a quiet L.A. park, one of his many safe havens. Petra Conner is the LAPD homicide detective assigned to the case, which is hampered by public relations concerns when it is discovered that the victim is the ex-wife of Cart Ramsey, the star of a popular television vigilante detective drama. Conner is forced to investigate gently. The case has "media frenzy" written all over it and Petra is strongly advised to walk tenderly to keep the celebrities associated with the case from becoming incensed. The specter of O.J. Simpson still looms large over Los Angeles.

The novel is told from two points of view: The young Billy speaks in first person, and the reader gets an up-close view of how this wiser-than-average youth becomes one of the wary street children roaming Los Angeles. His scenes are interleaved with the third-person perspective of Conner as she begins to pull the threads of the crime together. Kellerman can't resist the temptation to invest Billy with good manners and high intellect, but the boy is a charmer and the reader is with him through thick and thin. He is a richly drawn, sympathetic character. The scenes of his escape from an abusive home situation to the marginally better life on the streets is harrowing and probably all too common. Billy has more to worry about than he realizes, however. The crime which he has seen is high-profile and both his testimony and his silence are worth large sums of money.

As a whodunit, the novel succeeds in switching the reader's suspicion among the cast of suspects. Just when it seems the clues point all in one direction, they suddenly point convincingly in another. Or do they? The novel speeds toward its climax, and the killer enters the stage as another narrator. His anonymous scenes simultaneously reveal and obscure his identity. The body count rises as Billy becomes the focus of an intensive man-hunt. He is pursued by the police, the murderer and various greed-driven shadows from his past, all after him for different reasons. Once he becomes aware that his presence at the scene is public knowledge and his picture has been splashed all across the city, he knows that his life is at even greater risk now than ever before and he is quickly running out of safe places.

Petra Conner and Billy Straight's paths converge toward the end of the novel. Conner realizes that in order to solve this case, she needs to find Billy Straight and to save Billy's life, she needs to solve the murder. Conner is a complex character, with a life filled with all of the ordinary problems of a divorced single woman trying to balance career and personal life. She is an appealing heroine and a worthy care-taker of Alex Delaware's territory.

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