Published June 30, 2009
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.