I’ve written more than once about the great fear I have of being forgotten, of all my work fading from the reading public’s consciousness like a half-remembered dream the moment I take my last breath. Or maybe even sooner, while I’m still around to suffer the indignity.
I have this fear because I’ve seen it happen to others; talented writers who wrote great books but, for one reason or another, missed out on the fame and fortune they deserved. Their names were known to readers for a while and then, suddenly, they weren’t. One day, these people just vanished from what I often refer to as “the conversation” and were never heard from again.
This is what happened to a damn fine crime writer named Terri White, and hell if I can understand it.
One of the greatest compliments a book reviewer ever paid to something I’d written was calling it “the best Elmore Leonard rip-off since Elmore Leonard.” Publisher’s Weekly was referring to my 2003 standalone MAN EATER, but the reviewer could have easily said the same thing fifteen years earlier about White’s terrific crime novel, FAULT LINES (Mysterious Press, 1988). I have yet to come across another book that nails the quirky, deceptively scary flavor of a Dutch Leonard novel quite so flawlessly.
True to the often-imitated but rarely duplicated Leonard formula, White populated FAULT LINES with a cast of off-beat, complex characters and then spun a tale in which their separate misadventures would ultimately collide.
Bryan Murphy is an ex-New York City cop who, forced into early retirement by a near-fatal heart attack, now makes his home in Los Angeles, where’s he’s bored to tears. So bored that he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an ex-con named Tray Detaglio, who’s only recently gotten out of the joint. Detaglio’s trying to find his ex-girlfriend Kathryn Daily, a cold-hearted hustler and pole dancer who claimed to be pregnant with his child when he last heard from her, but his clumsy attempts to track her down only land him in jail. When Murphy bails him out, being the only person Detaglio could think of to call for help, the two strike a deal: Murphy will look for Kathryn if Detaglio will take over some home repair work Murphy’s weak heart prevents him from tackling himself.
Meanwhile, Kathryn—having aborted Detaglio’s child years ago—is shacking up elsewhere in L.A. with two more ex-cons, former cellmates Dwight St. John and Chris Moore. Psychotic career criminals who make Detaglio look like an altar boy, Dwight and Chris seem resigned to pulling one stupid, meaningless liquor store robbery after another, until Kathryn offers them a chance at something much better: the Big, once-in-a-lifetime heist they’ve always dreamed of pulling. One of Kathryn’s many ex-boyfriends, post-Tray Detaglio, was mobbed-up drug dealer Michael Stanzione, and before she left him, she learned all there was to know about where Stanzione likes to keep a cool half-million in his palatial Beverly Hills mansion. . .
Get it? It’s a terrific set-up, and White works it all to perfection. Tight plotting, solid dialogue—it’s all here. But Kathryn—hot, sexy and oh, so wicked—is the poisoned straw that stirs this drink. Bedding and playing all three men at once—Dwight, Chris and Tray—as if they were suckers in a shell game, she leads the reader on a hardcore thrill ride reminiscent of. . .
Well, yeah: a great Elmore Leonard novel.
By now, writers “doing” Dutch Leonard are a dime a dozen; you can find Leonard knock-offs wherever books are sold. But great ones? Those are still a rare commodity, which is why FAULT LINES to this day continues to occupy a spot in my top ten of best crime novels ever read. The book should have made its author famous. It’s that unforgettable.
Or at least, it has been for me.