This contemporary noir novel takes a few pages to settle into, even if you’re familiar with the Cali hardboiled lingo it’s not easy to follow but persevere and it’s well worth it. Adam Frost has a distinctive voice, his narrator is a fascinating character and he has an intriguing take on a familiar theme in Los Angeles mysteries – the brutal murder of a young woman. This is the first of many tropes explored in the narrative. It’s a dark but involving story, so be prepared to be challenged but ultimately rewarded with a satisfying read.
The Damned Lovely is the ironic nickname for a dive bar in Glendale, California. Dark, dank and stuck in the 70s, at least it’s got a soul vibe. Sam and his partners love the place and probably wouldn’t have it any other way. Ex-cop Jiles does most of the bar work. His mate Slice is a likeable hanger on but Sam thinks he’s an untrustworthy character – something that will be tested later on.
The bar serves as a safe haven for off duty cops to hang out and unwind, away from the public eye. For Sam it’s almost like a hobby. He has ambitions to become a writer but at the moment he’s short on inspiration and, maybe, life experience. Sam seems to have retreated from life, hiding in Glendale away from relationships and avoiding the glitzier but soulless parts of LA, particularly Hollywood. It’s a place Sam describes as blandness incarnate but it suits him.
The one highlight of Sam’s day is when the girl in the fedora walks into The Damned Lovely. She’s as beautiful as she is mysterious. She never introduces herself so they call her Woolf because she’s reading To the Lighthouse. The woman likes to be left alone with her drink and her book. It’s a ritual. Sam is working up the nerve to chat to her, no one can figure how she would up picking this place to spend time.
Then one night a college frat boy decides to pester Woolf and Sam, in knight-in-shining-armour mode, steps in. It ends badly for him, though he actually manages to get a punch in before his lights go out. When Sam comes round the girl and the frat boy are gone. Jiles tells Sam that Woolf was grateful for his intervention but had to go. Naturally, Jiles and Slice taught the frat boy a lesson as they kicked him out onto the pavement.
Sam thinks he’s built up some credit with Woolf so resolves to talk to her next time and find out her name. Only Josie Pendleton, 22, of Pasadena, never comes back. That very night she is brutally raped, murdered and dumped in a secluded spot in a stolen Camry. It’s tragic but Sam is taking it personally – as though he knew Josie. The line between the desire for the truth and perverse obsession with the ghost of a dead woman becomes blurred for Sam. His perspective seems unbalanced, his motivation called into question.
So when the lead detective on the case Lou Pinner shows up at the bar, Sam ask Giles to convince Lou to let Same ride along to the mortuary to see the body. Sam knows he has to write about Josie and an obsession is born. Over the last couple of months two other girls have been murdered in similar fashion. No one thinks it’s the frat boy jock but they check him out anyway.
The police dig up no leads and Sam doesn’t take the lack of progress well. He attends the funeral, meets Josie’s friends and starts to build his own picture of what might have happened. Was it a random stranger, a maniac on the loose connected to the other two women, or something to do with the place she was volunteering, the boss seems dodgy. The detectives soon get annoyed with Sam butting in. Do they care or is there a hint of corruption in the inquiry? Ill equipped as he is, following pointers from his buddy Jiles, Sam becomes a detective in pursuit of a story and there’s a killer out there keeping an eye on him.
There are plenty of in-jokes about writing, the noir genre and the location but this is a dark, dark novel. Its themes are desire and obsession, and it deals with how missed opportunity and grief can become muddled together. A booze-fuelled, near the knuckle thrill ride. Not for everyone but a thrill for those steeped in noir and keen for a new take.
For a very different take on California there’s always the stalwart Michael Connelly whose The Dark Hours came out last year.
Down & Out Press
CFL Rating 4 Stars