From a trailer park in Watson to the streets of Los Angeles, violence follows young Californian Billy Straight. Leaving his weak-willed mother and her abusive boyfriend, the boy navigates his way to L.A., where he witnesses a murder. Billy becomes an “artful dodger” by necessity, using his savvy to survive. His strategies illustrate amazing self-control and logical thinking. Author and child psychologist, Jonathan Kellerman grants Billy a tremendous level of self-awareness. The preteen protagonist displays curiosity, intelligence and common sense, wrapped around a core of decency. He is a good person, eluding the surrounding evil, skillfully illustrated by Billy’s encounter with two elderly pedophiles. Not having positive interactions with adults and perhaps because of the deprivation at home, Billy immerses himself into reading. One stolen book on presidents found near the murder site links Billy with LAPD Detective Petra Connor. Connor’s quiet gathering of information contrasts with Billy’s gnawing search for sanctuary. Viewpoints alternate; one chapter comes from Billy’s perspective, the next gives an overview of Detective Connor’s day. Petra’s partner, Stu Bishop is facing difficulties outside the precinct, preventing him from supporting the less-experienced officer.
The O.J. Simpson case resonates in the plot. Lisa Ramsey, the murder victim, has divorced an actor. Connor’s boss chooses to increase the case’s media potential. Publication of Billy’s likeness and promise of a reward provoke two offensive characters into searching for the boy. Billy’s foes seem equal in number to his friends. From the moment Detective Connor learns that a minor is involved, she acts as Billy’s advocate. Later in the novel, when desperation spurs Billy’s attempt to steal from a synagogue, a congregant gives him sanctuary. This appears to be the novel’s “quiet before the storm.” Pacing, fairly even throughout the novel, changes.
Hardly new, the child in peril motif remains compelling. Kellerman’s literary creation, Billy Straight stands as a young role model. His survival skills resulted from difficult beginnings; his morality has an unknown source.