Calico by Lee Goldberg

3 Mins read
Calico by Lee Goldberg front cover

Lee Goldberg’s latest novel is something of a head-scratcher. Just what category does it fit into? It’s a modern-day police procedural, it’s a Western, it’s historical crime fiction, it’s… like nothing you’ve ever read before! Welcome to Calico – your reading experience is never likely to be the same again.

Former LAPD detective Beth McDade was shunted off into the wilderness after being caught in flagrante, having sex with one of her fellow officers in the back of a car. Now she’s keeping the peace somewhere in the baking hot Mojave Desert – a patch that includes Calico, a former mining town that now just about keeps going as a living museum.

It’s a place where nothing much happens, so when on one fateful night in February 2019 Beth gets called from her bed, where she is ‘entertaining’ the latest man she’s picked up from a bar that’s aptly called Pour Decisions, she is soon dressed and on her way to Peggy Sue’s, a diner just off Interstate 15 in the middle of the desert.

There’s been a road traffic accident – pretty rare on a highway that sees few vehicles. An RV containing two pensioners heading east to Las Vegas has hit a man running across the road and killed him. At the time the accident occurred, the driver was distracted by a massive explosion or lightning bolt and the man came, literally, out of nowhere.

Curious… and things get curiouser when the autopsy on the apparent vagrant reveals that his clothes date from over 100 years ago and are infested with lice. The victim was suffering from mercury poisoning and syphilis, and his dental work was of a type that has not been legal for many decades. But there has to be a rational explanation, right?

Pragmatic Beth thinks someone is playing an elaborate joke. Then she hears about Owen Slader, a restaurant blogger from Los Angeles who went missing on his way back from Las Vegas, heading for a weekend date with his daughter, and her already off kilter life goes into a tailspin. The GPS tracker in his car showed his last location was a gas station in Beth’s patch and just a couple of days later Slader’s skeleton is uncovered at the site of a new lake development – but how did he decompose so quickly? And why are his bones more than a century old – except for a modern-day metal plate in his elbow and two snazzy dental implants?

Slap bang in the middle of a police procedural, Lee Goldberg drops the time travel bombshell – and rather than turning any dyed-in-the-wool crime fiction reader off he neatly uses this unexpected tangent to keep them doggedly onside to the final full stop. As the narrative deftly switches between the present day and 19th century Calico we piece together the story of Owen and of Beth – and rather than seeming far-fetched, it has an unerring sense of realism and an almost cinematic attention to detail.

Most entertaining is the story arc given to Owen, who becomes Ben Cartwright (in a nod to the old Western TV series Bonanza) and begins a whole new life in a whole different century. He still has his iPhone and a solar battery pack – both of which he keeps hidden, along with the fact that he knows exactly what happens to the place where he’s ended up in. The historical accuracy, tempered by Owen/Ben’s modern-day sensibilities, are both funny and heart rending.

Calico is a unique read and a hugely entertaining one. It’s no mean feat to push crime fiction past the bounds of possibility and still keep those pages turning, but Lee Goldberg handles the whole thing admirably. This guy has worked as a screenwriter on everything from Diagnosis Murder to Monk, and his skill in characterisation and dialogue shines through, along with some spectacular location work – both in the past and present day. This story would make a great TV drama – but first and foremost it’s a cracking good crime read!

Also see The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which became a Apple TV production.

Severn House

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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