Every once in a while, a neo-noir writer comes along who’s so exciting, he/she turns me into an annoying evangelist-type fan with a fervent need to spread the word. Five years ago, Charlie Huston had this effect on me with his first novel, Caught Stealing. Gillian Flynn did it to me in 2006 with Sharp Objects. This year, the honor goes to Richard Lange and his debut novel, This Wicked World.
Former marine and ex-con Jimmy Boone is a bartender on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to repair his life after a horrible mistake cost him a luxiourious lifestyle and landed him in prison. One day, he goes with a friend as a favor to look into an illegal immigrant’s death and quickly becomes obsessed with the case, even after his friend has dropped the investigation. Boone’s probe into the matter gets him involved with an attractive ex-cop neighbor, a vindictive stripper and her drug-dealing brother, and a deadly criminal mastermind who runs a dog-fighting ring in the Twentynine Palms desert. Things go violently awry and Boone finds himself in a situation that puts his life—and those of his friends—in mortal danger.
There are many things to praise about this novel: the tight yet expressive prose; the hip, witty dialogue that almost needs to be read aloud so you can hear how good Lange is with banter; the compelling plot which slowly reveals why Boone went to prison; and the unexpected moments of black humor (a bad guy’s profane internal monologue is cut off mid-sentence when he gets shot).
But the most striking thing about this book is the cast of characters. In this story, no one is completely heroic and no one is pure evil. Everyone lives in a gray area, surviving the only way they know how, searching for the same thing: redemption. The good guys have done some questionable things in their past but somehow you don’t judge them. More surprisingly, Lange made me understand and empathize a little with the nastiest characters, even as I was horrified by their actions. One of the crime boss’s henchmen, for example, can kill a man in cold blood but also subjects himself to painful tattoo-removal procedures so he can look more respectable in court while fighting for custody of his young daughter.
This dual nature extends to the novel’s L.A. setting as well. The city can be a glamorous place but Lange prefers hanging out in the grittier neighborhoods, capturing the feel of places and people who usually have police searchlights instead of movie spotlights on them. “Wicked” can mean either evil or wonderful so the title is appropriate because this story is both.
Nerd verdict: Wicked World is wicked good
Whoa, whoa, whoa…..Better than Huston’s debut? This I gotta read!
I didn’t say better, but just as good. If you like Huston, you will probably like Lange because his style reminds me a little of Huston’s—lean and hip—and the characters are also misfits who are as funny as they are dangerous.
I already have a couple of Huston books in the TBR pile, but it looks like I’ll be adding this, as well. Good review, PCN. Thanks.
le0pard, I love hearing about people’s TBR piles. What else is in yours and how high is it?
Well, it’s kinda grown since I’ve begun to actually read print, again. Mostly, the stack is in audiobook. I’ve got three Charlie Huston’s (Caught Stealing, Already Dead, and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death), a few Douglas Preston & Lincoln Childs’, Hurwitz’s Crime Writer & Trust No One, trying to find a place to start the Kim Harrison Hollow series and Landale’s Hap & Leonard series, and I see Connelly has a new Bosch for Oct, which reminds me that I’m still early into the series (next up is Trunk Music).
In print, I’ve just started Dave Zeltersman’s Small Crimes, with Pariah waiting in the wings. Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis and what I’ve heard is the modern hard boiled classic by Crumley, The Last Good Kiss. And Corey Wilde has just convinced me that I’ve got to start Donald Westlake’s Parker series. Whew! And this doesn’t cover the historical non-fiction I change up with. Sorry for rambling, but you asked ;-).
I asked because I am interested so thanks for sharing!
That’s quite an impressive and daunting list. So much good stuff in there. I almost hate to tell you that your stack will probably be two books taller once you finish Huston’s Caught Stealing because you’ll want to rip right through the other two in the Hank Thompson trilogy—Six Bad Things & A Dangerous Man. You CAN stop at Stealing because it does have a proper ending but I don’t think you’ll want to because you won’t know what ultimately happens to Hank.
I love Gillian Flynn so if this is on that level, I’ll check it out. I also enjoy books that take place in L.A. since it’s where I live.
I’ve been a fan of all the books you have raved about so far, but I have never read a review of yours in which you made comparisons to other writers I adore. Okay, I’m sold. Getting out the credit card and heading to Amazon.
I actually try to avoid comparisons to other writers because sometimes I think it’s unfair. Maybe a new writer would like to be judged on his own merits instead of labeled “the next so-and-so” and held up to someone who’s been writing for decades. In this instance, I meant that my excitement about Lange’s novel mirrored my strong reactions to Huston’s and Flynn’s debut novels, not that their styles are the same, though there are superficial similarities.
I’m happy to hear you’re picking up the book because I unequivocally recommend it. I just didn’t want you to be misled into expecting a Huston or Flynn copy.
I liked THIS WICKED WORLD quite a bit more than Gillian Flynn, although not as much as Charlie Huston. Reminded me of early James Ellroy.
Huston is in a category of his own. You can rip off the covers of his books and I’d still know he wrote them. There are very few writers I can say that about.
Sounds great. I’ve heard multiple buzz about THIS WICKED WORLD now, so I’ll have to grab it.
I love when ‘bad’ guys do good things (such as the tattoo removal for his daughter). Thanks for the recommendation.
Lori A. May
This book challenged my notions of what makes a “good” person because violent guys do some decent things and the “heroes” are guilty of dubious acts. One moment, I’d want to punch someone in the face and the next, I’m feeling a little sorry for them. I never thought in a million years I’d empathize with such monstrous people and that’s what makes Lange’s writing impressive.
I don’t know if we can discuss this without spoiling things for those who haven’t read the book yet…. But which monstrous people did you empathize with? I don’t recall having that reaction. Lange seemed to be drawing pretty clear lines between the bad guys and the “good” guys (who are, of course, morally compromised, as befits the genre).
You’re right. It’s hard not to spoil so I’ll try to tread carefully. And I’d like to say I empathized, not sympathized or condoned.
As mentioned, I felt for Spiller’s desire to win custody of his daughter from the mother who sounds dreadful, not that he would make a better parent. His wanting to protect his daughter, however successful in execution, made him interesting.
Olivia made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to shake her senseless and call her rude names, but once her past was revealed, I was surprised at how sorry I felt for her.
Taggert’s desire to get out of the coal mines and have a better life—the future he wanted for him and Olivia—made him just a little more human and less pure-evil guy, not that it justifies anything he does.
Again, no condoning, no sympathy, but some understanding of these people made them more compelling. I wrote to Lange telling him this and he responded: “I really wanted people to feel for all the characters in the book, even the villains — not necessarily sympathize with them, but at least have some empathy for them — and you’re the first reader to let me know I succeeded in some way. So, you made my day.”
I’m not so much into neo-noir myself -I would’t consider myself a happy-prancing-pony lover, though!- but I do enjoy the occasional dark(ish) stuff in my reading.
What makes me a little sad about your book reviews is that a lot of them (books) don’t even get here to Mexico (at least not in time to seize my fanboy compulsion), and a bunch of them get lost in translation, and when I do get to read them they’re crap! I think I’ll have to endulge myself in some Amazon-frenzy in order to get most of them, don’t you think?
(By the way, I kind’a solved my problem with music downloads! I’ve got a new cellphone which came with a whole year of free music. I still have to find a lot of songs, but I got the AI singles for “free” -I mean free in the sense that I payed almost 400 dollars for the cell, but…)
Yay for free year of music! (We won’t talk about how much the phone cost.) Besides the AI stuff, what have you downloaded so far? Does the phone allow you to buy a card for extra storage?
Regarding the books, I do think you should indulge in some online buying because your English is excellent. You don’t need those crappy translations! I wish I could read some authors in their native language, like Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, one of my favorite books of all time. I did manage to muddle through Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate in Spanish (this book/movie may be before your time) but that was only a small volume and took me a long time.
Believe me… I’ve read/watched Como agua para chocolate, and I cried like a baby the whole book, so I know what you feel. I may be able to recommend a few books in spanish so you can improve yours -I’ll think of a few easy ones to read. The thing about online buying is that sometimes the transportation costs makes the book price go to the stratosphere! But I’ve been found guilty of sneaking a few pesos to my credit card so I can indulge myself with some reading in english (in fact, I’ve read the whole Harry Potter saga in english, LOL!, among others).
About the phone, each day I find how amazing it is! I’ve got about 6 Gb of memory, and I can actually enhance this storage capability with an extra card! The sad thing is that the songs are protected, so I can only listen to them in my computer, and transfer them to the cell when I’m online (license-stuff or something), though I get to keep the songs forever as long as I listen to them in the Nokia music software -or the cellphone…
As today, I’ve dowloaded all of the Killers, Keane, Kings of Leon, Shakira (woohooo!!), Zoe (a mexican band… just amazing, I do recommend it), Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson (gotta love her!), a few BSpears, Rolling Stones, and so much more. I’m right now looking through the Bon Jovi and Aerosmith catalog so I can “legalize” my library. I think next week I’ll be filling my “oldies-but-goodies” (ABBA, Mammas & Papas <-for my mom!, and Beatles, of course!)
I’d love to get recommendations of easy Spanish books I can read! Thank you. And you’re a Harry Potter fan, too? I can’t imagine reading those books in any other language. Rowling’s prose is exceptional and I’d fear something might get lost in translation. Are you excited about the Half-Blood Prince movie? I can’t wait!
You’ve got a good list of songs there. Love Shakira! Which Kelly Clarkson songs did you get? There are a bunch on her latest album, All I Ever Wanted, that are really good: “I Do Not Hook Up,” “Long Shot,” “I Want You,” “Cry,” et al. Love ABBA and Beatles, too. They have huge catalogs so it’s a good thing you’ve got that 6GB card!
Excellent review, PCN. If I had read this first, I would just have linked to your review and skipped the work of writing one!
If you’re curious to see my review, it’s here:
David, I particularly agree with your point in the paragraph that begins “As good as it is.” Of the many strong characters, Jimmy is the least effective one. As you say, his motivations are not substantial enough to drive the actions he takes. But I can overlook that because I enjoyed the book on so many other levels.
Perhaps we should form a Richard Lange fan club.
Corey, I’m glad you wrote your great review because the more support he gets, the better. If he keeps up this kind of quality, I want him writing books for a long time.
David, you astutely pointed out how hard it is to write this kind of crime fiction well. Lange makes it seem easy, which is even more impressive.
I got a message from Richard after my review ran, and he said he’s working on a new short story collection, then a second novel.
So it’ll be very interesting to see where he goes next.