“You’ve got to be ready for moments like these, ready to drown your ruined heart as soon as it starts beating again.” — from ANGEL BABY.
In 2013, Elmore Leonard left us, and I took that pretty hard. If there is any silver lining to that loss, it’s that his influence reverberates through the work of several younger writers. I’ve read plenty and as much as it counts, my vote for the best of all of them is Richard Lange, whose book of short stories DEAD BOYS and first novel THIS WICKED WORLD I snapped up and can’t recommend any more highly.
This new novel, ANGEL BABY, is about Luz, the beautiful wife of Rolando, a.k.a. El Principe, an abusive drug kingpin in Mexico who escapes across the border to California, helped by Malone, a doomed man who isn’t much of a lifeline. They’re pursued by a man named Jerónimo, a deadly assassin who won’t ever relent, because Rolando has his family’s lives under the trigger. There’s also a crooked American cop looking to get the money Luz swiped from Rolando, because there are a lot of different breeds of bad people in this world and therefore in this book also. Luz will walk right through the crossfire, because she has a daughter on the other side, the subject of the story’s title.
Now, that’s not a far cry from an Elmore Leonard plot, though I’d halt the [favorable] comparisons there and emphasize the uniqueness of Richard Lange’s writing, which has a flavor and a legitimacy and a sadness all its own. Lange is more of a street-level poet. His prose and dialogue feel real and believable, yet they resound with fatalistic import. There are lines in this book that can break your heart and the heartbreak aftershocks last long after the speedy read is done.
In a slight return to comparisons, Lange’s depictions of California and Mexico have a verisimilitude I’d venture to liken to John Fante, though Lange’s work is more readily cinematic. An Edward Hopper painting sprung to life, maybe. If there is a movie, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, Michael Mann would knock it out of the park. The gut-punching romanticism of ANGEL BABY is right up that alley. Read if you like. Or if you don’t! It’s good enough to stand on its own merits, a unique blend of border noir, hard-boiled crime, and corrido music.
ANGEL BABY is everything you could want in a crime novel: protagonists who can frustrate and move you, villains who are scary as all hell, action that feels alive, and emotional impact that lingers. Richard Lange’s work is bruising and vital. I can’t wait for his next book.