A victim turns the tables on her attacker in a powerful new thriller If Jilliane Hoffman's fiction debut, Retribution, seems sinfully rich in the stuff we crave most in a good legal thriller, it's because she prepared the book from scratch using only the finest ingredients: one part Thomas Harris, one part James Patterson and one part John Grisham. The result is a psychological nail-biter that moves at lightning speed through a series of jury-jolting courtroom revelations. The former Miami prosecutor had a killer idea for a psychological thriller about a rape victim who ends up prosecuting her assailant. At her husband's suggestion, Hoffman left her high-profile dream job as the regional legal advisor to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state equivalent of the FBI, to stay at home in Fort Lauderdale with their two children, ages four and six, and write fiction.

While the book-buying public will deliver its verdict shortly, Retribution has already been found guilty of movie blockbuster potential by Warner Bros., which paid seven figures for the film rights. Five top actresses Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow are vying for the lead. Production is expected to begin this summer.

Pardon Hoffman for being a bit thunderstruck at her beginner's luck. After all, she had never written more than a legal brief before creating Retribution.

"What a week I had! The book was auctioned off on a Monday, it was sold in five countries by Wednesday, and then it was sold to Warner Brothers on Friday. I keep thinking I'm probably going to die a very violent death because I had such a great year. Somebody should not have that much good luck in one year." Early buzz hints that Retribution could be this year's Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow's 1987 debut that cast a similarly jaundiced eye toward our often-fallible justice system.

The novel opens with the brutal rape of Chloe Larson, a New York law student who is about to marry and embark on a promising legal career. Her attacker, who wears a clown's mask, is never found and continues to stalk her, derailing her life.

Fast-forward a decade. Chloe has reinvented herself as C.J. Townsend, a hard-nosed Miami state attorney and go-to prosecutor in high-profile capital cases whose past remains her closely guarded secret. When police apprehend a serial killer dubbed Cupid by the media (his m.o. involves surgically removing the hearts of his female victims), C.J. can't wait to prosecute him until she hears his voice in court and, to her horror, finds herself face to face with her long-ago assailant.

Can she ethically proceed with the prosecution? Should she come clean about her relationship to the accused and risk having the case reassigned to a less competent prosecutor? Or, if she keeps her secret, can she hold herself together long enough to win a conviction? It's a tasty dilemma, the first of several in this well-plotted page-turner that culminates in a surprise ending that will leave readers analyzing C.J.'s choices for days to come.

"That's exactly what I was after," Hoffman admits. "I didn't want to have a happy ending. I wanted it to spur discussion." Hoffman had a tough jury of one to satisfy: herself. "I wanted to make sure that it was real. I can't stand reading a legal book and I get to a part and think, this would never happen and that would never happen and medically that couldn't happen." C.

J. Townsend bears much in common with her creator. Although Hoffman has never been a victim of rape, she has worked closely with victims of domestic violence and prosecuted serial rapists.

"I've had many a rape victim tell me their story, and as a female, if you close your eyes and think about what it might be like, you can envision it," she says. Hoffman defends her decision to open the novel with the brutally believable rape and its even creepier aftermath. "The rape had to be such a brutal act in order for you to understand her trauma in getting over it and her need for revenge," she says. "When you can feel the terror that the character has gone through, I think you can really empathize with the decisions she has to make later on." Retribution also pits two women lawyers C.J. and defense attorney Lourdes Rubio against each other in what has been a male-dominated genre. "I had scenes in my head of a conflict between two females over something that would unite females and yet tear them apart. It sounds strange but it seemed like rape was one of those issues that only women could really experience a certain way, and yet if you put them on opposite ends of the same issue, it would make interesting dynamics." Could Hoffman ever envision herself crossing the aisle and defending the accused? "I could if they were innocent, but you can't go forward with a defense based on that premise," she says. "Maybe I'm jaded by the system, but I couldn't use my skills to get somebody off, then subsequently find out that they were truly guilty. It just seems to go against everything that I believe in." With a hefty movie deal in pocket and a sequel already in the works, it seems likely that Hoffman's future court appearances will be strictly confined to jury duty. Jay MacDonald is a writer based in Mississippi.

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