Written by Jeff Klima — When an angry civilian stands outside the entrance to Los Angeles’ main police station shouting threats and waving a gun around, two things are certain. One, it will end up as suicide-by-cop and that the city’s media will be out in force. And two, because of point one, Tom Tanner’s company Trauma Gone – the crime scene cleaner agency – will get the call to clear up the resulting mess.
When he does the necessary, Tom Tanner will have to keep a low profile. He’s a man with a past. About a decade ago he had a promising future in medicine. But a drunken decision to drive home from a party ruined more lives than just Tom’s. He killed a young girl, Holly Kelly, and served eight years in the state penitentiary. Ever since Tom got out the girl’s parents, Hank and Julie, have been harassing him wherever he ends up working. It’s not easy for a man on parole to find a job especially when an angry group protests outside waving placards reading: ‘Child Killer!. Tom’s had to change jobs several times and wants to keep this one, so he makes every effort to stay invisible.
Tom has noticed an awful lot of murders appear to be happening at the various Offramp Inns dotted around LA’s freeway system. What’s more, they always occur in room 236, and there is always a condom hidden in the room’s bible. Tom’s desire to keep a low profile alone is enough to keep him from going to the cops about his suspicions, never mind his distrust of the police or the fact that his heroin habit breaks his parole conditions and if discovered would spell a one-way ticket back to prison to complete his life sentence.
After Tom allows his cynical veneer to crack just enough to make friends with a strip club bartender, Ivy, the pair review the crime scene photos he’s required to take before and after each clean-up. They discover the mysterious serial killer has another signature – a smiley face. One scene has the pepperoni slices on a pizza rearranged, another face has been drawn on a cigarette packet, and a third marked on a mirror with lipstick.
Ivy can understand Tom’s reluctance to go to the police but demands action of some kind. When Tom demurs she threatens to go herself unless he stakes out one of the few remaining Inns not to have been targeted. On his third night Tom interrupts a masked man trying to break into one of the rooms adjoining the car park, but in the struggle and confusion the man escapes. When Tom is woken the following morning with a call from Harold, his boss at Trauma Gone, with another job, he discovers a note on his windshield. It is from the killer who warns that he knows where Tom lives. When he gets back after the job, his landlady is dead and there’s a second note, this time in his apartment. Tom and Ivy have had the tables turned on them. First they thought they were hunting a killer, now the killer is hunting them.
LA Rotten is a really impressive debut. The premise is excellent and the execution does it justice. Klima does a great job of rendering his characters. Ivy, boisterous and reckless, is an excellent counterpoint to the cynical and reserved Tom. Secondary characters are not ignored, particularly the killer and Duane Caruzzi, Tom’s parole officer, an ex-cop kicked off the force for racism who keeps trying to get Tom to join his white power group. The book’s black humour reminded me a little of Donald E Westlake, while the setting and dialogue could have come from Elmore Leonard. Those are two crime writing legends whose names I don’t evoke lightly. Hopefully, LA Rotten is just the start for Jeff Klima.
For some similar hardboiled crime fiction click here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars