07.25.09

A Wicked L.A. Noir

Richard Lange’s first book set the bar so high that his sophomore effort had almost no chance of living up to the hype—except that it does, an L.A. Confidential for the 21st century.

Following up a debut that became a juggernaut is a daunting feat, even for the best of writers. Richard Lange’s first effort, Dead Boys, a collection of gritty short stories, was compared favorably to the works of Denis Johnson, Thomas McGuane, and Raymond Carver. It got rave reviews from the critics, won praise from Michael Connelly, Alice Sebold, and T.C. Boyle, and helped the author win a Guggenheim fellowship. So when word came that Lange was publishing a followup—his first novel—he was writing with a gun to his head.

Fortunately for Lange and his readers, This Wicked World shows no signs of a sophomore slump. It’s a sharp, literary crime novel with the kind of lean and sparse prose that writers like Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark honed to a razor’s edge. It’s also a worthy entry in the proud tradition of Los Angeles noir novels started by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, and carried on by such luminaries as Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, and others.

It’s a sharp, literary crime novel with the kind of lean and sparse prose that writers like Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark honed to a razor’s edge.

This Wicked World tells the story of Jimmy Boone, an ex-con and former Marine just scraping by in an unglamorous section of Hollywood. Jimmy is working as a bartender and trying to stay out of trouble when Robo, the bar’s bouncer, asks Jimmy to go along with him on a job. A young immigrant has died under suspicious circumstances and the man’s grandfather has hired Robo to find out what happened. Needing a white face to give him credibility, Robo takes Jimmy along with him. Jimmy has no intention of getting involved, but one of the themes of This Wicked World is that our intentions seldom matter much in the grand scheme of things. What matters are our actions, and Jimmy’s actions lead him, and those around him, into a world of hurt.

Lange’s writing is reminiscent of that of James Ellroy, the gonzo crime writer who penned such masterpieces as L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid. It’s Ellroy’s earlier work, though, that Lange brings to mind—the Ellroy of Brown’s Requiem and Blood on the Moon, back when he was still finding his voice and experimenting with his storytelling style. Lange is doing a similar thing and while the elements are familiar, the execution is better than the norm. He’s got the expected noir tropes—the world-weary characters, the terse, slangy prose, the peek behind the curtain at the dark side of life—but he brings it all together in a way that is often imitated but very difficult to pull off. A lot of writers try to write like this, but Lange just does it and he makes it work.

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This Wicked World. Richard Lange Little, Brown and Company. 416 Pages. $23.99. ()

As good as it is, This Wicked World isn’t a perfect book. It sometimes feels like a great set of characters and a lot of good writing awkwardly grafted on to a crime plot of convenience. This is especially noticeable when it comes to some of Jimmy’s actions. It’s too easy to think that he does the things he does not because they’re his character, but because Lange needs him to act in a certain way in order to advance the plot. There are times when Lange doesn’t convince us that the lengths Jimmy goes to are things he has to do—a motivation that seems necessary given the risks he takes—and that diminishes the overall power of the narrative. As the novel reaches its conclusion, Jimmy does start to act the way it seems his character would demand, rather than what the plot requires, but it’s easy to be left wishing for something more.

It’s possible to get past a limitation like that, however, when the rest of the book is so good. Several neo-noir authors have emerged in the past few years determined to revolutionize the crime genre. Warren Ellis and Jerry Stahl—writers better known for their work in other areas—are two that come to mind. The problem with their novels, however, was that they weren’t very good. Their books tried hard to be edgy and hipper-than-thou, but ended up being an unreadable mess instead. That experience proves how difficult it is to write this kind of book, which makes Lange’s achievement all the more memorable.

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David J. Montgomery is a critic for The Daily Beast and has written about authors and books for many of the country's largest newspapers.