Today we welcome Ro Cuzon, a contributor for The Rogue Reader, as he reviews Richard Lange’s critically acclaimed new novel, Angel Baby.
There may be more talented crime fiction authors working today than at any time in history, and I enjoy reading the great varieties of books they produce. Much too rarely, though, do I stumble upon that novel which seems to have been written especially for me. Stories where Voice, Character, Plot, and Setting, all combine to create a perfect, elating cocktail that instantly catapults me to the white-hot center of the narrative, messing with my mind and body as if I was personally involved in the events on the page, triggering heart palpitations, dry mouth, clammy hands, etc.
These novels all tend to be about criminals or people who have committed a crime (there’s a difference, I think), and the intensity of my reactions to their protagonists’ predicaments is always directly related to one thing: the degree of realism that the authors bring to their stories.
Enter Angel Baby by Richard Lange.
The novel opens with Luz, a beautiful Mexican young woman running away from her husband Ronaldo, a powerful and sadistic Tijuana narco known as El Principe. Her plan: cross the border and reunite with her daughter Isabel whom she left behind three years earlier. She crosses paths with Kevin Malone, an alcoholic drifter from San Diego with a tragic past, and together they set out for the border.
After learning of Luz’s escape, El Principe sics one of his most ruthless enforcers on his runaway wife. Jerónimo Cruz, aka El Apache, was planning to go straight and take care of his family once he got out of prison—that is, until El Principe pulls him out and orders him to bring Luz back, making him an offer he can’t refuse. Meanwhile, Thacker, a crooked Border Patrol agent, gets wind of the cash Luz is carrying and wants to steal it from her.
Angel Baby is a straightforward chase story, masterfully executed and beautifully written. It’s the complexity of each character, however, and Lange’s empathy for each of them (even the most depraved), that makes the novel such a unique read, pushing and pulling you in all directions. You root for Luz to be reunited with Isabel, of course, but also, maddeningly, for Jerónimo to catch her, because the alternative for him is simply too horrible to contemplate.
Many Mystery/Thriller/Noir authors’ insights into crime come from other books and movies of the genre, as well as news events and research on the Internet or at the library. And there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows writing is hard and time-consuming enough without having to risk one’s life going on a nature walk across gang territory to scope out a drug corner just to get it right on the page. But we are talking about crime here, so there is something to be said about the value of firsthand interaction with (or at least observation of) certain people and settings, and what the thrill or fear associated with that lifestyle can do for one’s writing.
I was never a violent criminal but I did spend the first half of my adult life gravitating toward trouble and the type of people who caused it. This shaped both the way I write today and the way I read, especially crime fiction. I didn’t know anything about Richard Lange when I opened Angel Baby but his true-to-life writing was instantly familiar to me, as was his vivid portrait of the seedier side of the world we live in, evoked with the dead-on ease of Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Richard Price, or George Pelecanos.
While Lange may not have actually served time in Tijuana’s La Mesa—he is a recipient of a Guggenhein Fellowship, after all—he has most definitely roamed the gritty streets of Compton and felt the grimy TJ sun beating down on his back, and interacted with gang members and illegal immigrants alike. His keen observations of Southern California’s have-nots on both sides of the border, combined with a complete understanding of his characters’ motivations, make Angel Baby as brutal and real a novel as you will read this year, a fantastically paced page-turner with prose that both sings and cuts.
Named by George Pelecanos as a “rising stars of the new generation of noir novelists,” Ro Cuzon is the author of Under the Dixie Moon, a Library Journal Staff Pick for Best of 2012, and Under the Carib Sun. His third book in the Adel Destin crime series, Crescent City Stomp, will be published later this year by The Rogue Reader. He lives and writes in New Orleans.