by Jeff Klima
Pages: 232 pages
Reviewed by: Ginger Beck
L.A. Rotten: A Gritty New Twist on Classic Crime Fiction
If female detective Kinsey Milhone of Sue Grafton’s The Alphabet Series were to get knocked-up by Miami blood analyst and serial-killer-with-a-code-of-ethics Dexter Morgan, and that baby were raised by Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow and eventually grew up to be a handsome ex-con and recovering alcoholic with a taste for the occasional heroin injection and a backroom lust for strippers and sex, you’d have the anti-hero of Jeff Klima’s L.A. Rotten: A Tom Tanner Mystery. Are readers going to find the next powerhouse in detective fiction with this new series? Well, that remains to be seen. However, L.A. Rotten is an undeniably fun and coarse modernization of classic hard-boiled crime fiction stories; readers meet a less-than-honorable, yet likeable, detective-type; incompetent and often corrupt law enforcement officers, a sexy heroine with low morals but a conscience that leads our anti-hero to some redemption, and a villain who is just crafty and psychotic enough for readers to be entertained by his constant twists of danger.
Klima uses classic traits of crime fiction and couples them with wild new scenarios, giving readers something fresh to read and connect with. Parolee Tom Tanner has found his niche in the working world, post-prison. He is a crime scene cleanup specialist, called in to sanitize the remains of blood and death after police have concluded their work. Recently, Tom has been called more and more often to different Offramp Inns for a variety of grisly scenes: slit-writs, gun deaths, overdoses, and stabbings. He soon discovers a pattern: the deaths all occur in room 236, and in each room under the mattresses, he finds a Bible with a condom inside. Here readers see the first elements of classic hard-boiled fiction that peek their way into the story: the police are incompetent and careless. No connection by police has been made that these deaths occur in various locations of the same cheap motel chain and in the same room number. Because Tanner has an obvious dislike for the police, his “not-my-problem” attitude is established early, leaving readers to wonder if we can even like our narrator:
It annoys me that whatever this whole burgeoning enigma is, the cops haven’t caught on to it. I’m not going to go out of my way to help them—already today I got a little too close with that cop damn near figuring me out. I’m already baiting the trap by working in such close proximity to the police, so I’m not going to stick my foot in by getting involved.
At various points throughout the book, other examples of incompetent and shady cops arise, such as Tom’s parole officer attempting to recruit him into a white supremacist society and providing him with an unregistered weapon. Readers continue to see that Tom is a modernized version of the hard-boiled detective: pessimistic yet praiseworthy, sometimes sentimental, sometimes cruel, but most tellingly, he exhibits both failure and success in life as other anti-heroes in the genre have before him.
Klima has no qualms about making Tom Tanner an anti-hero: we want to like him, but doing so is damn hard. His frequent visits to strip clubs, where he indulges in the occasional back-room stripper sex, make him a less than honorable lead, yet, as a character, he is also believable. It is in this strip club where he meets our strong female lead: the fake-breasted, tattooed waitress Ivy, whom he inadvertently gets fired. Of course not too many pages later, the two have teamed up to catch the killer, as Ivy has become an unexpected moral compass who guides Tom towards doing the right thing, although they still don’t involve the police. Her presence as his golden-haired, crass and buxom love interest, gives us our female protagonist who pushes Tom to act when he is hesitant to make decisions.
The story itself is fast paced and entertaining, and Klima gives readers a bad guy we enjoy watching Tom chase, and be chased by. The often silly, always sneaky killer, remains a major character who takes a similar interest in Tom’s life and wants Tom to join in the murderous escapades. Racing against the clock, Tom must figure out how to stop the villain from harming Tom’s friends and employer, and sucking Tom into a killer’s plot of insanity. Klima gives readers just enough information about the twisted antagonist to make us wholly interested in this thoroughly creepy yet believable serial killer.
Klima shows Tom’s struggle between remaining an ex-con with low morals, and becoming a more honest and productive citizen who wants to protect his friends and lover. His inner monologue reveals his desire to get away from it all: “I will close the business and disappear, go to a new town, a smaller one, and just be nameless. I don’t even have to go back to my apartment. I think about all the cities in all the states out there, and how I’ve never lived in any of them except rotten Los Angeles.” His turmoil allows readers to connect and finally make the decision that Tom’s character does have redeeming qualities and is likable, despite his flaws.
Like any good detective story, there must be a showdown between the hero and the villain, with the beautiful dame caught somewhere in between. L.A.Rotten does not disappoint this formula. Tom must make the final decision to outsmart the killer before he and Ivy become victims themselves.
Will Jeff Klima’s new Tom Tanner Mysteries become the next great American detective series? That remains to be seen. However, anyone who enjoys the classic hard-boiled detective story formula and doesn’t mind the grittiness of a modern day interpretation filled with sex, drugs, and of course, murder, will definitely enjoy L.A.Rotten and look forward to future installments to see what Tom Tanner gets himself into next.
Ginger Beck is a writer and English teacher at an alternative high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. She advocates for at-risk youth, sings in a local band, and is obsessed with dinosaurs and outer-space. She lives with her boyfriend Michael and their 12-year-old poodle now that her 18-year-old daughter has left for college. Her most recent work has appeared in Foliate Oak, The Molotov Cocktail, and Red Savina Review.