Book Review: This Wicked World

January 12, 2010

This Wicked World

By Richard Lange

Published June 30, 2009

Little, Brown and Company

416 pp.

ISBN 0-316-01737-X

Reviewed: January 11, 2010

All major cities tend to inspire literature based on their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – New York, London and Paris in particular boast a thriving canon – but for some reason those that come out of Los Angeles are the most distinctive. From Raymond Chandler to Charles Bukowski to James Ellroy, the city’s stories and characters have a curiously dark and jaded hue setting them aside from other metropolitan fiction. It’s a setting where failures outnumber success hundreds to one, full of cultural icons but also struggling immigrants, embittered lawmen and artists clawing for a break.

The sheer scope of Los Angeles also means that thousands of things can happen under the radar, as Tom Cruise’s assassin character pointed out in the film “Collateral” when he mentions a man who died on the train: “Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.” In Richard Lange’s debut novel “This Wicked World,” someone does notice one of those corpses – and following the path to discovery adds yet another chapter to the city’s bleakness.

Like “Collateral” this corpse is also found on public transportation, only this time it’s the body of a young Hispanic immigrant covered in infected dog bites. Seeking to find out what happened, his grandfather enlists the help of Jimmy Boone, a former Marine and convict currently making ends meet as a bartender. Boone takes the case, and finds the deceased was linked to an ugly world of dogfights, drug deals and counterfeiting – a world that’s not happy about him poking around in it.

Indeed, very few people seem to be happy in this rendition of Los Angeles – the mottoes “More good times than bad” and “Fail better” are each mentioned more than once, and each of the featured characters seems to have at least five bad stories from their past. Boone, the novel’s weathered hero, started out life as a small-town punk who chose the army over jail, wound up in a bad marriage with a rich Daddy’s girl and made one critically bad choice that destroyed a thriving security career. Other characters have been molested, their children shot themselves, they kept their mouths shut on bad shootings when they were cops – Lange leaves no one unburdened, and happiness on a short leash.

The negativity of the main characters is fairly overwhelming at times, but Lange invests each of them with surprising depth to match their detailed histories. There’s an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire who raises fighting dogs, a nervous young drug dealer who could be seamlessly replaced with the excellent Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad” and a homicidal hitman who’s getting laser tattoo removal to better impress the judge who’s hearing his daughter’s custody case. Like any good mystery the split between good guys and bad guys is fairly nonexistent, all are on varied levels of being screwed over and finding a way to get through the day. Lange takes advantage of telling the novel in third-person present tense, swapping within chapters without ever losing the story in one character.

It also helps that the story is genuinely well-told, with the cinematic noir feeling of many of the better LA-themed mystery novels. On one half there’s the endless sprawl of the metro areas, “the bashing, crashing swirl of the city” with its half-abandoned bars and junkie apartments, and on the other half is the barren desert, “full of dust, no color she can name.” “Wicked World” doesn’t lack for atmosphere by a long shot, and as the course of events proceed – like all the right mysteries set off by just one little thing – there’s the concrete feeling that no one is looking out for anyone beyond themselves.

The events do get a touch convoluted after a while – the participants are entangled in one too many crimes gone bad – but it’s a testament to Lange’s skill as a writer that he’s able to keep a reader going until the end. It’s a cinematic feel that compelling executes a normally conventional plot, and actually leaves one genuinely concerned with how its diverse cast is going to turn out. “This Wicked World” is both proof of that and a very satisfying addition to the LA canon – proof that no matter how the world changes, the City of Angels will always have thousands of stories without a moral.

Book Review: Beat the Reaper

May 17, 2009

Beat The Reaper: A Novel

BeatTheReaperBy Josh Bazell

Published January 7, 2009

Little, Brown and Company

320 pp.

ISBN 0-316-03222-0

Reviewed May 17, 2009

When you look at mainstream television and wade past the slew of reality shows and generic comedies, scripted drama tends to be dominated by two genres. First is the criminal world, represented by epic series like “The Sopranos” or “Law and Order”-style procedurals; and second is the medical field, headed by the “ER” juggernaut and a slew of comedic dramas such as “House” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” Both series have their own distinct traits but also share common threads: overly tense environments, a heavy dose of gallows humor and a professional lingo that takes a few episodes to understand.

Despite the similarities between and popularity of both genres, the two rarely come together – which is a mistake, if Josh Bazell’s first novel “Beat the Reaper” is any indication. A mix of “ER” and “A History of Violence,” casting a hitman in the role of a downtrodden medical resident, “Beat the Reaper” is a book with a distinctive voice, an educated grasp of its subject matter and a talent for delivering some truly shocking scenes.

The hitman in question is Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, alias “Peter Brown” – a contract killer for a New York crime family who has been placed in witness protection and now works agonizingly brutal graveyard shifts at Manhattan Catholic. At the start of one of these shifts, he finds out a terminal cancer patient not only recognizes him, but has contacted a friend to put the word out in the event of his death. With the patient about to go under the knife, Brnwa has to feverishly find a way to keep him alive – while at the same time dealing with every other demand an understaffed hospital encompasses.

Obviously there’s a big difference between the Hippocratic oath and murder for hire, but Bazell does a surprisingly solid job of melding the two. The story, told in first-person present tense, shows how Brnwa’s mind processes the situation from a medical standpoint, such as when he downs mugger with brutal efficiency and goes through the anatomy of breaking the elbow. It’s a wry, cynical voice reminiscent of Edward Norton’s narration in “Fight Club,” and it drives the story on through his narration and a variety of wry footnotes rattling off medical facts and legalese.

Brnwa makes for an interesting character, but it’s the hospital he operates in that commands your attention. Bazell, who holds both an MD and an English literature degree, has stocked the book full of details that could only be known by someone operating in the healthcare trenches. Readers will learn how residents function during obscenely long shifts (stimulants procured from drug reps, Milk of Magnesia poured over cold cereal), see just how sexist an oncologist can be in the operating room and how a doctor can tell how old you are at first glance. All of these asides are offered in the same cynical and resigned tone, resembling the narration for “Scrubs” as read by Mel Gibson.

The medical terminology is so well mastered that the mob sections – flashbacks filling every other chapter – regularly come up short. There’s a fair share of gratuitous violence and commentary on the state of America’s legal system, but many of the characters depicted lack the realism and personality of the hospital residents. A few scenes are simply over-the-top even in the book’s context and there are also one or two unnecessary plot twists – one in particular involving the background of Pietro’s grandparents – that feel like Bazell is reaching for impact.

And reaching isn’t something he needs to, as the book is ripe with truly disturbing scenes. Beyond the burnout and apathy of the general hospital staff, Manhattan Catholic is rife with events that require a strong constitution to even witness. Syringes of unidentifiable contents, legs that swell up with blood for unknown reasons and clearly unsanitary surgical equipment all populate the area, and give Brnwa more immediate concerns than mafia shooters. The last few chapters are particularly macabre, with a trapped Brnwa once again falling back on medical school to create the most wincingly painful improvised weapon in literature.

While the book is a bit too eager to set up a sequel – the epilogue chapter is almost ham-handed in presenting plot threads – the majority of the volume is so well done that its continuation is encouraged. “Beat the Reaper” is entertaining and fast-paced, a thinking man’s suspense novel with enough of the real world in it to make readers even more uncomfortable about their next visit to the hospital.


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