Written by Joe Hefferon — Author Joe Hefferon spent 25 years in law enforcement in gritty Newark, New Jersey. That experience undoubtedly colored his view of the characters in this, his first full-length novel. It has an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and it’s set on the other US coast, in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident – on top of the world – but underneath, well, it’s more complicated.
The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow. Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest too for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.
Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears – most likely in the form of Nina herself – the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.
This catastrophe awakens Nina from her dream existence and forces her to confront some uncomfortable truths. Her husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she’s afraid to tell him. But she needs help and seeks it by traveling all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator to look into the situation for her and finds much more than she bargained for.
The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of the year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth becomes dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.
The engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. While ‘creative writing’ would suggest that innovations in word usage should be encouraged, requiring a reader too think too much about the diction isn’t desirable. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “The reporter continued with this line of inquiry. Whether it was his inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”
You’ll enjoy the way the plot develops, and spending time with these characters. This is an author who may well become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. The title comes from a late passage in which Nina calls her situation “…that place – a line across the earth that defines the moment you must move forward, but that also signals a place from which you can never return… the one that forever alters the boundaries of your manufactured universe.” Such formal dialog is a stylistic choice that Hefferon has made – very un-Elmore Leonard-like – that mostly works here.
It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective CS (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Raymond Chandler and his progeny.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars