There’s few stories more American and appealing than the myth of exceptionalism — the tale of a person who believes they are uniquely and solely qualified to take on a high-stakes challenge. (Recall that Donald Trump soared to presidential victory on the strength of his conviction that “I alone” can “make America great again.”)
What makes such stories work takes something exceptional as well — namely, the author’s ability to let their characters tell their story, and not give into the temptation to intrude and clear the way on their behalf by constantly telling us in narrative how good and wondrous and virtuous and strong and noble the POV characters are. (And what POV characters are not.)
In my reading experience, not many crime-fiction authors are able or willing to get out of the way of their point-of-view characters, choosing instead to color the narrative with bits of background detail meant to tilt the reader’s sympathies (a huge problem in cozies, especially, where ugly people are bad and pretty people are good). Smart authors let characters develop sympathy on their own, based on their words and actions, and let readers decide for themselves if that sympathy is earned rather than forced upon them.
Mindy Mejia is such a smart author. And Maya Stark, the antiheroic heroine of Mejia’s second novel, LEAVE NO TRACE, is such a character, and a convincing one. Because of her damaged background, which includes a long-missing mother and a murder (of sorts), Maya — a teenage mental patient who graduated to speech therapist at the same hospital in which she was confined — believes that she alone can unlock the mystery of current mental patient Lucas Blackthorn.
Lucas, who may or may not have murdered someone, was captured after spending a decade in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Area with his survivalist father — who’s missing, and, according to Lucas, is sick and in danger of dying as winter closes in. And, speaking of exceptionalism, he’s convinced he’s the only one who can find his father.
Maya, whose geologist mother was least seen in the same area at about the time Lucas and his father disappeared, is an unreliable narrator. What makes this work — and not just as a gimmick to jerk around the reader with intrusive twistiness, a device that seems to be in vogue right now — is Maya’s awareness of her own unreliability. She knows she’s a hot mess, and is probably not deserving of the trust that’s been placed in her by her doctor-mentor.
While she’s doesn’t fully own up to her attraction to Lucas, just four years younger, she is able to go as far as admitting her attraction to his dark side, and to all dark sides, as she plots to “kidnap” Lucas from the hospital — flushing her future in the process — and help him find his father. “The truth is,” Maya says, “I’m not comfortable unless something’s on fire or someone’s having a meltdown. I don’t know what to do with things that aren’t broken.”
Mejia is the author of EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, one of my favorite thrillers of 2017. Like LEAVE NO TRACE, that novel took the best aspects of high-stakes psychological suspense, usually found in slick, sleek urban settings, and transported them to appealing rural Midwest locales that are less aspirational but more relatable for most of us. LEAVE NO TRACE is more of a pure flyover-country story, where open space can be just as menacing as secure walls.
Not to be overlooked is Mejia’s standout instinct for characterization, for creating characters that are more relatable than likable. As a result, I found myself thoroughly infuriated by the end of LEAVE NO TRACE — and thoroughly satisfied. That means my emotions were as fully engaged as my intellect all the way through, and I can think of no higher praise for a novel.
A cool, cold heart beats slowly and steadily through the heat and heart of the night in Ronald Colby’s NIGHT DRIVER. This dark tone poem to 1970s Los Angeles is full of hustlers and whores and drugs and cigarettes and cauterized pain. And the kind of leering, thumping music that can—and often does—drive men on the make to murder.
In NIGHT DRIVER, it’s 1976, and once darkness falls, Nick Cullen prowls the freeways and streets of LA from behind the wheel of his taxi cab. He picks up despondent people and druggies and disco habitues and dark passengers with dead eyes. But his real work is trying to get a line, however thin and frayed, on the three men who murdered his wife and baby in a home-invasion robbery that turned into a horror movie.
Night after night, Nick smokes, drinks, takes drugs, takes propositions, deals with death dealers and his own demons, driving, driving, driving under blue lights and buzzing neon signs. He stops only for a few hours of fitful sleep and to get in the face of the police detective who shares his frustrations but isn’t willing to go as far as Nick is to find the killers.
The killers themselves? They don’t even think about it. They’ve moved on, to other towns, other scores, other hustles. But LA always pulls them back. That’s their salvation, or so they think. All it takes is one break. One tiny break. And when it comes, everybody involved senses that their world is going to break wide open.
It’s no wonder that Colby first tried to make it in film before shifting to fiction, as NIGHT DRIVER is shot through with cinematic sensibilities. Imagine TAXI DRIVER meets NIGHT MOVES meets AMERICAN GIGOLO meets THE DRIVER meets THIEF, a story full of sinister shadows and searing heat and smoke curling around sweaty bodies. Sweaty from sex, from guilt, from insensate need. Imagine if Paul Schrader and Michael Mann and Monte Hellman and Charles Bukowski had collaborated on a coherent, cold-as-switchblade-steel, super-cool screenplay. Then you’d get the dark, pulsing vein of NIGHT DRIVER.
I was not an admirer of Michael Pool’s novella DEBT CRUSHER, primarily for one reason: nearly nonexistent characterization. The antihero had no interests, no opinions, no past, no personality quirks, and seemed almost chemically leached of color. He was nobody to which a reader could form any kind of emotional attachment.
I’m pleased to say that characterization is a particular strength of Pool’s first novel, TEXAS TWO-STEP, which is flat-out terrific — a frothy, finely plotted blend of heart and hardboiled fuckstickery.
Cooper and Davis are a couple of Colorado-by-way-of-Texas hippies pushing thirty, and pushing up against the limits of growing and selling stellar but illegal weed in the legal-cannabis era. When Cooper’s girlfriend turns up pregnant, he promises her he’ll cash out of the life and go legit after he gets rid of his current supply.
The only buyer they can find, however, is a coked-up Texas cowboy named Sancho, who partners up with Bobby Burnell, a Heisman Trophy winner turned drugged-out burnout and bottom-feeding crew member of a murderous crime family. But Sancho is in the crosshairs of a vengeful Texas state senator who is using Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick as his one-man army against the dealer who sold his grandson a lethal dose.
Throw all of then in a blender, hit a random button, and watch the wackiness splatter the walls.
While the plotting has the crisp pearl-button-snap of plausible perfection, it’s the rich character notes that really lift TEXAS TWO-STEP above the merely pretty good. Cooper and Davis care about each other, and care about being better than they are. Sancho has no real menace in him, and Bobby doesn’t want to see anyone hurt either (except maybe his rageaholic crime-boss uncle). Kirkpatrick’s heart is elsewhere as well. All he wants at first is a Caribbean vacation. Then he meets the female deputy of a corrupt sheriff, who goes after his sexist assumptions, then goes after his ass in the happiest possible way.
TEXAS TWO-STEP holds up well alongside other bawdy-with-a-body-count books, like Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard stories, Johnny Shaw’s Jimmy Veeder Fiascos, Jeffery Hess’s Scotland Ross tales, and virtually anything by Steve Brewer, Eric Beetner and Elmore Leonard. This is the first of a series, and Michael Pool is one to watch.
I’ve previously voiced my disdain for frontloaded characters — characters who are introduced to us as sympathetic based on past sufferings, and as such rarely bother to earn sympathy by what they actually do once the story gets going.
And I’ll be honest — I thought that’s where LAND OF SHADOWS, the first of four Elouise “Lou” Norton police procedurals from Rachel Howzell Hall — was headed when I learned in the first few pages that Lou a) grew up poor in the projects; b) lost her older sister when she was a child; and c) is being cheated upon by her ridiculously rich video-game-designer husband. (And, d) of course, all the fellas lust after her.)
But practically in the same breath, I learned that Lou allowed her husband to buy off her anger and pain with a $90,000 Porsche, and I thought: Whoa. Suddenly she’s not so sympathetic after all. She’s something more complicated, more real. And came to see that the contradiction Lou embodies — good instincts as an L.A. homicide detective, bad instincts in her personal life — is the hot oil that makes the gears of her story go.
That, and she’s got one of the best narrative voices I’ve ever come across. LAND OF SHADOWS is almost insanely quotable, and it’s hard to pick just one line. But this is one that strikes me as the ultimate Lou Norton thesis statement:
“I’m sassy, but not Florence-the-Jeffersons’-maid sassy. Nor am I ultrareligious. I’m sure as hell not an earth mother, so there’s that to remember, too. Actually, you’d be better off seeking comfort from that palm tree across the street before coming to me. Also, I hate watermelon but I love chicken. I can say ‘nigga’ but I will break every bone in your face if I hear you say it.”
I could listen to Lou Norton bust my chops all day long.
The story: When Monique Darson, a teen girl, is found murdered in southwest L.A., Lou sees uncomfortable parallels to the 25-year-old disappearance of her big sister, Tori. And soon she can’t ignore the very real possibility that the person who took her sister and the person who killed Monie are one and the same.
Beyond incredibly witty writing full of drop-the-mic social truths, Howzell Hall shows herself to be a rock star with plot. She does a masterful job of keeping the reader deliciously off-balance by setting up no fewer than half a dozen characters as plausible suspects, always circling back to each, never completely ruling them out or committing to them as suspects until the very end. Lou has the gift of committing to the Holmesian method of investigation, following the clues where they go, while letting herself her lesser self fantasize about short-cutting, and crushing each suspect based on her easily triggered but well-earned personal dislikes.
I sometimes fantasize about spending a few years in prison just so I can catch up on all the great crime fiction out. LAND OF SHADOWS is a case in point. It came out in 2014, and I got to it only four years later, and now I want to squeeze in the next three novels right away with time I don’t have. But somehow I suspect I’ll manage, because I like having Lou’s voice inside my head. And that’s a must for any successful series.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by Unlawful Acts and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds.