In Khoury’s debut novel, a struggling painter who’s looking for an art dealer meets a drug dealer instead—and danger ensues.
Short on rent and desperate for cash, Regina “Gina” McKenna is about to get a citation for attempting to sell her paintings in a Laguna Beach, California, park without a permit when Jason Cavalieri, owner of Cabaret Restaurant, comes to her rescue. He buys a painting on the spot and invites her to a party, promising that he’ll introduce her to his wealthy friends. Instead, he entangles her in his secret drug-dealing operation—and a murder plot—just as Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Bobby Garcia homes in on Jason’s business partner, Miguel Lopez, as a suspect in his investigation. The action unfolds in short, punchy chapters as Gina tries to extract herself from Jason’s grip while the police and the other drug dealers try to find out how much she knows about her new benefactor. In one especially exciting scene, a criminal dangles from a plane in midair, desperately trying to climb back inside before he plummets into the Pacific Ocean. Orange County is known for its beautiful coastline and sunny skies; Khoury’s story shows a darker side, including a growing housing crisis and a failing war on drugs. The protagonist’s anxiety is palpable as she cold-calls art galleries and passes out homemade fliers to try to sell her work so that she can pay for the small space she rents from a family who’s struggling to pay the mortgage. Deputy District Attorney Tom Halloway, who develops a soft spot for Gina while he works on her case, is also quick to provide statistics on how legalizing drugs would save resources and reduce crime. Gina is shown to be naïve but scrappy, and when she lands in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, she cowers before shifty inmates and unscrupulous guards—until a street-savvy prostitute shows her the ropes, giving her a fighting chance.
A fast-paced, often thrilling tale, with the economic plight of an artist living in a high-rent neighborhood as an unexpected bonus.