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BOOK REVIEW

In 'Source,' a reporter's investigation fails to turn up satisfying results

A Confidential Source, By Jan Brogan, Mysterious, 326 pp., $24.95

Reporter Hallie Ahern has fallen, and as in all great crashes, she has wound up in some lowly circumstances. Once a star investigative journalist for the (fictional) Boston Ledger, she is now a community affairs reporter for the Providence Morning Chronicle, stuck in a suburban bureau, writing fluff pieces on bake sales and PTA meetings.

At least she's not sleeping with an accused murderer whom she's also writing about, something she did back in Boston. She is, however, gambling, something she can't afford given her meager salary and her mounting debt. She's not a woman who makes very good choices, though, in either her personal or professional life.

As Jan Brogan's ''A Confidential Source" begins, Hallie stops by a convenience store to buy a carton of milk and a few scratch-off lottery tickets. While she's there, two men enter, and one murders the store's proprietor, Barry Mazursky, a kind old gent whom Hallie had considered a friend.

At first it looks as if the killing had been a robbery gone bad: tragic, but not really worthy of Page 1. But Hallie pokes around and finds that maybe there was more going on than she had thought. It seems the store owner was a compulsive gambler and was in over his head in debt to local loan sharks. Hallie starts to think he was killed for a reason, maybe to shut him up before he could reveal some crucial piece of information.

As Hallie investigates, she runs into brick walls in the form of an uncooperative police force, a handsome but cold prosecutor for the attorney general's office, and a mayor who is determined to win approval for an ordinance that would allow casino gambling in Providence -- a bill that would be defeated if Hallie can prove that gambling interests were behind Mazursky's murder.

Benefiting from luck more than from good sense, Hallie discovers a crucial lead through an obsession with talk radio. Unfortunately, the lead proves hazardous for her career when she relies on a talk-show host as her ''confidential source" and learns too late that -- big surprise -- he has his own agenda and doesn't necessarily have her best interests at heart.

This turn of events reveals one of the frustrating things about Hallie: She's not very good at her job. She trusts people she shouldn't, she writes things no experienced reporter ever would, and she generally makes a hash of her career. If Hallie were a better reporter, she would actually dig in to what could be a fascinating story. Instead, she just bumbles along.

Hallie doesn't have much luck in other areas of her life, either. Her flirtation with Matt Cavanaugh, the lawyer with the attorney general's office, is largely unbelievable. He's an attractive guy and appears nice enough at first glance, but Brogan never reveals enough about him to make us see why Hallie would care.

His main function seems to be to warn her off the investigation and tell her she's going to be killed. Not a very romantic fellow.

Another weakness involves the story's focus on gambling. There are enough superficial touches to let us know the author did some research, but that subplot lacks the fine detail that would make it compelling.

In particular, Hallie's compulsion never feels very real or serious. She buys a few lottery tickets, she loses a little at blackjack, but she never gets desperate, never feels the burning itch that only a bet she can't afford will scratch.

Ultimately, ''A Confidential Source" is a mildly satisfying story, but Hallie Ahern and her readers deserve better.

If Brogan is going to match the quality of writing and storytelling demonstrated by Denise Hamilton's superb books featuring reporter Eve Diamond, a series that mines similar territory, she's got her work cut out for her.

David J. Montgomery is a freelance book reviewer and the editor of Mystery Ink (www.mysteryinkonline.com).

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