The Bottom Line: An atmospheric, suspenseful and wistful work of LA Noir. Recommended for fans of Lisa Gray and Michael Connelly.
Can a private investigator’s worst nightmare also be his salvation?
In Keith Edward Vaughn’s debut novel, second-generation PI Ellis Dunaway lives in the shadow of his late father, a former LAPD detective with a rock-solid reputation. But on Ellis’ watch, the shrinking firm’s cases wrap too soon and for too little money. As the book begins, he can only afford to keep his lone employee – a struggling single Mom working two jobs – for just one more month.
A new journey begins as club owner Terry Montero asks Ellis to check up on a friend named Douglas. On his way, he learns from Los Angeles Sheriff’s Detective Courtland Hollender that Terry sells drugs for a cartel called the Black Fist – and that his father was looking into the organization prior to his death. In addition to drugs, the Black First also trades in guns, babies and body parts. Later, at Douglas’ rental, he finds a loaded pistol and cocaine, dirty dishes, pills and signs of sporadic occupancy. The trail soon leads to a series of lethal encounters that could be the end of Ellis – or an opportunity for redemption.
In Ellis, Vaughn has modeled his hero in the tradition of down-and-out LA noir detectives. Ellis doesn’t use the term “shabby dignity” to refer to himself, but it aptly describes his own situation. He has heart, guts and good instincts, but he’s also a loner with money problems and a marijuana habit that may get him kicked out of his apartment. Ellis’ idea of a good night is getting home, getting drunk and working on his screenplay. In his darker moments, he views himself as a martyr who sacrificed his writing career and girlfriend to try to save his father’s business.
LA-obsessives will adore Vaughn’s service to the city and its history throughout the book. That’s especially true of entertainment culture, as Vaughn name-drops everything from fascinating Beach Boys lore to Three’s Company skits. As for music, the book’s audio references will make a terrific Spotify playlist. Vaughn mostly drops locally-grown icons like Guns n Roses and Motley Crue, but he also knows when to break outside of the mold, as he does with Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up – which, used in two very different contexts, becomes surprisingly emotional.