The short story collection Dead Boys by Richard Lange was one of the best that I’ve ever read. A San Francisco Times reviewer called the book one of the best story collections of the last fifty years. It was pretty damn good. (Check out my review here.) Richard Lange also had the lack of judgement to be among the first authors to subject himself to a BGB interview. It should come as no surprise then, that I was eager to get my hands on Lange’s first novel, This Wicked World. I picked it up right when it came out, but then a funny thing happened. I couldn’t read it. It sat on my shelf for months because I was sure that I would be disappointed when it didn’t live up to the promise of Dead Boys. Eventually I got over it and gave it a shot..
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Dead Boys is Lange’s ability to bring the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles (a place that I’ve never been) to sharp and crackling life. In Wicked World, Lange has the room to explore Los Angeles from the faux glitz of Hollywood Boulevard to the tenements of illegal workers and almost everywhere in between. Similarly, all manner of Angelinos find their way onto these pages.
Jimmy Boone is an ex-con and former bodyguard to the stars. He’s stuck bar tending and working for an abusive boss who exploits Jimmy’s limited options for his own needs. A a friend calls on Jimmy to help out with a private investigation job, mostly by standing around looking like a cop. He is hesitant to join in at first, but it seems like a way to briefly escape the tedium of his life. Which naturally becomes quite the understatement. The seemingly innocuous gig quickly pulls Jimmy into a hidden world of crime, violence, and mayhem. Forget keeping on the right side of his parole officer, he’ll be lucky to get out alive.
Lange is an excellent writer. This is a very good, gritty, crime novel that packs a punch while keeping it real. Lange excels in creating a palpable sense of place and that skill is on full display here. However, the narrative was not as tightly wound as the short stories in Dead Boys which left me a little disappointed, but I suppose that is to be expected.
My biggest gripe with the novel though is an epilogue that feels as though some suit at the publisher coerced Lange to tack it on the end. The novel ends as it should, with some ambiguity about what might happen next. The kind of ending that keeps you thinking about a novel when you’re done. And then, suddenly, there’s an epilogue that spells out exactly how everything turns out down the road. Bummed me out. Check out the novel, but carefully remove the epilogue first.