Every once in a while, a neo-noir writer comes along who’s so exciting, he/she turns me into an annoying evangelist-type fan with a fervent need to spread the word. Five years ago, Charlie Huston had this effect on me with his first novel, Caught Stealing. Gillian Flynn did it to me in 2006 with Sharp Objects. This year, the honor goes to Richard Lange and his debut novel, This Wicked World.
Former marine and ex-con Jimmy Boone is a bartender on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to repair his life after a horrible mistake cost him a luxiourious lifestyle and landed him in prison. One day, he goes with a friend as a favor to look into an illegal immigrant’s death and quickly becomes obsessed with the case, even after his friend has dropped the investigation. Boone’s probe into the matter gets him involved with an attractive ex-cop neighbor, a vindictive stripper and her drug-dealing brother, and a deadly criminal mastermind who runs a dog-fighting ring in the Twentynine Palms desert. Things go violently awry and Boone finds himself in a situation that puts his life—and those of his friends—in mortal danger.
There are many things to praise about this novel: the tight yet expressive prose; the hip, witty dialogue that almost needs to be read aloud so you can hear how good Lange is with banter; the compelling plot which slowly reveals why Boone went to prison; and the unexpected moments of black humor (a bad guy’s profane internal monologue is cut off mid-sentence when he gets shot).
But the most striking thing about this book is the cast of characters. In this story, no one is completely heroic and no one is pure evil. Everyone lives in a gray area, surviving the only way they know how, searching for the same thing: redemption. The good guys have done some questionable things in their past but somehow you don’t judge them. More surprisingly, Lange made me understand and empathize a little with the nastiest characters, even as I was horrified by their actions. One of the crime boss’s henchmen, for example, can kill a man in cold blood but also subjects himself to painful tattoo-removal procedures so he can look more respectable in court while fighting for custody of his young daughter.
This dual nature extends to the novel’s L.A. setting as well. The city can be a glamorous place but Lange prefers hanging out in the grittier neighborhoods, capturing the feel of places and people who usually have police searchlights instead of movie spotlights on them. “Wicked” can mean either evil or wonderful so the title is appropriate because this story is both.
Nerd verdict: Wicked World is wicked good