A 12-stepping ex-cop goes on a grand tour of seedy Southern California to investigate his sponsor’s shocking overdose.
Randy, the hero of Barden’s busy but engaging debut, has a lot of the trappings of a noir hero in the Chandler and Hammett vein: a sixth sense for telling when somebody’s lying, women he’s trying (and failing) to do right by and a hot temper that alternately helps and hurts him. The chief distinction here is that Randy is a recovering alcoholic, which gives this story a healthy amount of verve and black comedy. Rather than sounding preachy or cowed, Randy has the bravado and attitude of a man who’s fighting hard for his sobriety. He’s distraught to learn that his AA sponsor, Terry, died of a heroin overdose, and solving the mystery leads him into the worlds of recovery houses, pot dealers, pornographers and drug-enforcement agents. The multitude of threads Randy follows bog down the story somewhat, especially because little distinguishes the various bad guys—one SoCal goon is as craven and greedy as any other. But the novel has some solid anchors in Terry, whom Randy fondly remembers as a font of tough love, Randy’s skeptical girlfriend Mary Pat and his daughter, Alison, who clarifies what the stakes are. More memorable than the plot or characters, though, is Randy’s voice. Like many people in recovery, he spends a lot of time working through past errors and regrets (a violent drunken beating that got him booted from the force is just one), and he can be sanctimonious at times. But he’s no cardboard AA spokesperson, and when he interacts with the young addicts slipping in and out of recovery, he underscores just how much of a struggle sobriety can be.
A slightly clunky thriller that succeeds on the emotional and physical muscle of its narrator.