The White Van by Patrick Hoffman

3 Mins read

This is a story about what happens when people get in way over their heads. The short answer is nothing good. And the long answer, unfolding in this page-turner of a thriller, involves all kinds of bad. At the center of the story is 31-year-old Emily Rosario, a down-on-her-luck San Francisco woman living on society’s sharp, cold edges. “She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life.” One with fewer drugs and kinder men.

The story opens with Emily being picked up in a Tenderloin district dive bar. The man who approaches her, rather smoothly as it happens, is Russian. She doesn’t think he looks dangerous. He has money, he is clean. And he has crack. With these thin rationalisations, she accompanies him to his hotel near the airport. Soon she’s being fed more drugs than she’s bargained for or is aware of, and other Russians come into the picture.

They keep her for a week in a state of semi-stupefaction, then, still foggy, she’s sent into a bank to carry off the pretense of a robbery. Now in possession of a satchel containing $880,000, she stumbles out of the bank, but instead of climbing into the robbers’ waiting van – the eponymous white van – she steps back into the bank, nabs the security guard’s gun, and sends him running. Confused, with sirens approaching, the van’s driver takes off. Emily emerges and runs away. The robbers have lost her and, of greater concern, the cash.

Meanwhile, Leo Elias and his younger partner Gary Trammell, members of the San Francisco Police Department’s Gang Task Force are cruising the streets. Elias’s recent string of lousy financial decisions is fast catching up with him. His disaffected wife is pregnant, and they are about to lose their home. This robbery seems to Elias like a crime he might be able to solve. And in solving it, he means to steal the money from the thieves. Trammell is reluctant, but Elias draws him in, and as they sink deeper and deeper into a case they have no authority to investigate, Elias – without sleep and perpetually drunk on wine camouflaged as Gatorade – acts crazier and crazier. Trammell, uneasy, decides to just go along, at least for a while.

Emily can’t quite make up her mind to leave San Francisco, but the Russians in the white van and the two increasingly desperate cops are on her trail. A private detective has staked out her crib, and if any of her neighbors even suspected what’s in that bag she doesn’t let out of her sight, her life would be over in a finger-snap.

Saying much more would spoil Patrick Hoffman’s well-planned plot twists, but suffice it to say, they keep coming. He has lived in San Francisco and worked as an investigator, and his knowledge of the city and its geography, his familiarity with police procedures, and – even better – his understanding of police attitudes are totally convincing. “Delgado [the police union representative] leaned toward Elias and whispered, ‘There were a couple cameras in the alley, but none of them caught the incident. Which is to say, your memory of what happened is the correct version.’”

He also understands the psychology of people in trouble. Through his obsessive attention to their state of mind, he puts readers right in both Elias’s and Emily’s heads as the tension and the stakes continue to mount.

Hoffman worked five years for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, investigating cases for defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers. Likely that’s where he gained his insights into the habits and paranoia of people from the margins of society, and has used it in his debut novel. He makes all these characters seem so alive. People like Emily, her best friend Jules Gunn who is the stripper who comes through for her, her boyfriend Anthony Baptiste who does not, and her neighbor Isaac who helps her out but never knows it.

Don’t look for any deeper meaning in this noir novel, but it is a great book for a time when everyone’s away, there’s food in the house, and nothing to keep you from turning pages. Start reading it and you won’t want to stop.

For more noir reading, click here.

Grove Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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