It’s 1984, and the southern Arizona town of Copperton is terrorized by a killer who’s huge, strong, vicious, cunning…and too young for a learner’s permit. That’s the unsettling premise of Jim Christ’s riveting new crime novel, Girl Out of Darkness.

Christ, a retired educator who spent three decades teaching history and literature and serving as a principal in Tucson-area schools, remembers kids like his fictional Timmy Pyre, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound 14-year-old with a sharp mind, a charming manner, the cherubic looks of a young Paul McCartney, and nothing resembling a conscience.

“He’s a blend of two or three people I’ve known,” Christ recalls. “As an educator, you can usually tell who’s going to be a hard-boiled SOB, because they’re already acting out that way.”

Timmy acts out by throwing his stepmother Barbara off a balcony into a gulch behind their house because of her refusal to let him drive her car and other petty grievances. It’s a shocking act, and Christ’s grittily realistic prose captures it in imagery that’s richly evocative, conveying a dark nihilism amid desert sunlight:

When they came near the woman’s body on their all-terrain cycles, Elmer and Rudy Markey almost didn’t stop because the crumpled mass that lay there on the granite looked like a small pile of trash that someone had dumped illegally or like a load of laundry that had gotten away from some family in one of the houses along the ridge line and they just hadn’t made their way down to gather it up yet. 

Writing like that has won Girl Out of Darkness raves from critics. Christ “nails the good but impressionable, the bad but salvageable, and the flat-out chillingly evil that exists in human nature” writes the Arizona Daily Star, while Kirkus Reviews praises Girl as “a gripping story told with verve and intelligence” and “gimlet-eyed, sometimes poetic psychological insight.”

The novel is a deep excavation of a sociopathic mind that views people as disposable objects. Timmy choreographs his crime to look like an accident and avoid witnesses. He ropes in Daniel Ballesteros, a Polk High School classmate, to help stage it and supply an alibi. He quashes Daniel’s guilty feelings with crafty flattery and threats. He carefully maintains an innocent facade while planning more murders to keep it intact.

“Portraying Timmy was a matter of exploring that selfish side in myself,” says Christ. “If I had no restraints, if I were utterly self-absorbed and narcissistic, what would I think about and how would I manipulate people if I’m the only thing that matters?” 

Matching wits with Timmy is Deputy Pete Caldwell, a 60-something detective savvy enough to look askance at his story. Pete has little to go on and likelier suspects to investigate for Barbara’s murder, including Mexican migrants, Barbara’s unfaithful husband, and her own lover, a member of a right-wing militia. But he circles back to Timmy in a nerve-wracking detective procedural that hinges on cat-and-mouse interrogations, precisely calculated timelines, and the TV schedule for Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Christ, who lives in Tucson, spends his retirement writing novels about southern Arizona, where he grew up. Girl Out of Darkness is his third set in the area. “I love the desert and the hills, the grass country and the mountains,” he says. “I want to create a world from this region, the way Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County.” 

The land is therefore a fascinating presence in his fiction. Girl’s characters painstakingly negotiate dry washes and abandoned mines and analyze sightlines between houses. Christ charted the action using maps and memories of the area’s real-world geography. The land shapes psychology as well. “The region has an impact on everyone: the way they cross the border, the kind of psychopathic character that lives out in the wilderness.”

It also nurtures seething social tensions that are vividly revealed in Pete’s investigation. These include his vexed relationships with his partners Cisco Hernandez, who resents Pete’s peremptory air and mispronunciation of his name, and Naomi Savage, the department’s first female detective.

“Pete’s a good guy, but he doesn’t get the turmoil in society,” Christ says. “He doesn’t understand that Hernandez had to overcome racial prejudice his whole life and that Savage had to overcome gender bias. It’s a classic case of white male privilege.”

These are very current issues, but Christ set the novel in 1984 to sidestep today’s dogmatism. “I’m not trying to be political,” he insists, “and I didn’t want to sound preachy and condescending.” The period setting also adds a more personal dimension to the culture clash for Pete, who disowned his son for protesting the Vietnam War and is being prodded toward a reconciliation by his wife—a fraught task that resonates with his investigation of local teens.

Christ sees something of himself in Pete because of his teaching experience. “A vice principal has to think like a detective,” he notes. “You’re getting behavioral referrals for kids, so you have to gather evidence, interview people, sometimes work with police on a theft or assault. Kids can be good at deceiving you, so you pay attention to their mannerisms and behavior, how they speak to each other and their teachers, trying to get inside the student’s head.”

That shrewd, empathetic observation yields compelling portraits of adolescents like Sherry, a 14-year-old with acne and a reputation for promiscuity who gets involved with Daniel and Timmy. At first she seems like a shallow doormat: “That’s the way you got them to ignore the zits and like you,” she muses. “You dressed and made yourself up to make them look at you and get them to think you might give it up, and then you did, and they liked you.” But she journeys a long way in the story.

“Sherry is one of those characters who take over their destiny,” says Christ. “When I started writing, she was going to be a ditzy girl modeled on someone I dated, but she turned out to be nothing like that!” The novel pivots unexpectedly around her searching self-appraisal and decisive action. “She wrote herself, choosing how she was going to develop, whom she was going to love, and how she was going to take control of her life.”

The crucible of adolescence will be central to Christ’s next novel as well, which is set in the present at a Polk High influenced by gangs and drugs. Expect grim violence but also a promise of redemption. “I’m writing about moral themes,” Christ avers. Despite the coldblooded mayhem, “it’s all about growth and transformation and becoming a better person, which can involve some very thorny decisions.”

Will Green is a writer in New York.