Mystery readers tag along with a tenacious reporter
Jan Brogan has written a satisfying, fast-paced mystery about an investigative reporter who delves into the dark underworld of online crime, obsessively pursuing a story about a ring of well-connected pornographers who exploit teenage girls. The reporter in question is Hallie Ahern, and she writes for the Providence Morning Chronicle. While Brogan, an occasional correspondent for the Globe, guides her readers into the murky subculture of child pornography, she also shows us the complex inner workings of a newspaper that's quickly losing revenues to online sources and struggling to survive.
Hallie is a complex, fully realized character riddled with contradictions. As she aggressively pursues the child-porn story, battling both criminals and shifting winds inside the newsroom, she also longs for stability. Her live-in boyfriend, Matt, is a prosecutor for the Rhode Island attorney general's office, a fact that creates conflicts in their relationship, since each needs to keep professional secrets from the other. Most of all, Hallie is conflicted about her motives. Is she so obsessed with the child-porn case because she wants to protect teenagers, or because she wants to boost her career and her paper's flagging circulation?
Hallie's investigation begins when she happens on a soft-core-porn video featuring two bikini-clad teenagers at Rhode Island Buzz, a social networking website. She sets up a meeting with one of the girls at an electronics store. Here, Hallie sees an older man lurking in the webcam section, looking to pick up teenage girls. With this evidence, Hallie goes to her editor asking for the go-ahead for an investigative story.
She gets it, mostly because her publisher wants to hit back at Rhode Island Buzz, which is taking readership and revenues away from the Chronicle. As Hallie's editor, Dorothy, explains it: "When I mentioned your story, and how you'd found that kiddie beach clip posted on the Buzz, Ian got all excited. He says the story has juice."
Brogan skillfully tracks Hallie's investigation, keeping her narrative moving at a page-turning clip and continually, dramatically raising the stakes for all involved. Hallie interviews one of the girls, Whitney, in person, and she offers the reporter a number of leads. When Whitney ends up mysteriously dead in a shopping mall, supposedly overdosed on heroin, Hallie is crushed and redoubles her commitment.
Like all investigative reporters, Hallie faces challenging ethical dilemmas about issues of privacy and whether she should divulge her evidence to the police, especially because she lives with a prosecutor. For example, she finds herself unable to interview Whitney's mother about her daughter's untimely death: "Giving this poor mother 'a week to grieve' was not enough. She wasn't ready to talk to a reporter."
Brogan's plot thickens when Hallie is ordered off the investigation under suspicious circumstances. It seems that her publisher's company is seeking to acquire Rhode Island Buzz: "He no longer wanted to destroy the competition. He wanted to buy it." When Hallie refuses to back off, she ends up getting fired.
She doesn't stop, even after she also loses her boyfriend. The story's satisfying climax occurs on a boat off Newport, as Hallie confronts the Russian organizer of the child-porn ring. After the excitement concludes, Hallie does some soul-searching: "I needed a break from this dark world I'd inhabited these last few years, the constant search to find the worst that people did to each other." If Brogan's entertaining, escapist tale is any evidence, readers will be left hoping Hallie Ahern's break is a short one.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.