Talk about a grabber: the description for Alan Drew’s book Shadow Man starts out “What Dennis Lehane does for Boston, Alan Drew does for Southern California in this gritty thriller…” I thought “what a trifecta!” I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan for many years, I grew up in Orange County, CA (I am a huge fan of the earlier books by T. Jefferson Parker that were also set in the OC), and thrillers are among my favorite genres. So I couldn’t WAIT to dive into this book! Unfortunately, my husband snagged my Kindle and was instantly hooked, so I had to wait a few days for my chance. Wow, was it worth the wait!
The protagonist is Ben Wade, a police detective who left the LAPD and moved back to the fictional town of Rancho Santa Elena, partly in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Rachel. (Note the town is fictional, but it PERFECTLY captures the Orange County I escaped some years ago.) Ben is a good guy and a loving father, but he clearly has some baggage: as Natasha, the medical examiner and potential romantic interest, points out: “she could see why Rachel left him. He was a room with a locked door, and a wife wanted access.” Ben works on two separate cases throughout the book, one involving a serial killer and the other a mysterious gun death of a teenage boy, whose body was found near the residential labor camp that provides labor for the remaining crops that haven’t yet been replaced by the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up Orange County. No spoilers ahead, but great plot development in both areas.
The setting is incredibly important to the story. As the book opens, the Santa Anna winds are blowing: “The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue… winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air…” And anyone who has lived in Southern California will nod in agreement with Ben’s thought that there “…wasn’t any scientific evidence for this, but every cop knew something went haywire in people when the winds hit.”
Drew clearly knows the area, and I love the way he reveals what makes Rancho Santa Elena distinctly different from his previous life in LA: the town “… survived on being the opposite of L.A.—clean, organized, boring.” The essence of much of Orange County is due to the people who have moved there: They “…were afraid of the world; that’s why they moved here, to escape it. They believed master-planned order—straight streets, identical houses, brightly lit shopping centers—would keep them safe from the outside world.”
Along with the setting, the characters come alive with Drew’s outstanding descriptive skill: he notes a woman who is “Blonde of course, radiating the forced sexual brightness of plastic surgery and makeup.” (yes, I KNOW these people!) Not everyone is in the same class, including “…beach bums who lived in rotting wooden apartments and worked stocking grocery shelves so that they could ride the waves every day.” Sounds like my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, which frequently reminds people of Orange County in the 60s.
Even further down the social ladder are the farmworkers who are an integral part of the story. Drew captures their situation and interweaves the immigration issue without being pedantic, always keeping the story moving while at the same time making the reader aware of the class distinctions that are such a strong characteristic of the area. Talking about the farmworkers, we learn that ICE “…harassed the camp every few months, sending a few people back over the border. A cynical game, really, since the owners of the fields didn’t want their people deported, but local immigration needed to look as if the were doing their job. So, a compromise: Haul a few away, get it in the newspapers to appease a certain type of vote, and then let more come in the replace the ones sent home.” Wow.
Ben’s investigations lead him toward two social issues: the plight of the farmworkers and the effects of child abuse. As he ponders why the latter is often so well hidden, he reflects, “ “There were a few rumors among the teachers.” Jesus. What was the law worth if it was used to keep people quiet about what they all knew?”
I loved this book! It more than met my high expectations, with its compelling plot and relatable characters. But even more, it is the best kind of novel: one that truly entertains the reader while making us THINK. Ben Wade is a great character, and I hope Shadow Man is the first in a series.
For any refugees from behind the Orange Curtain, you will totally relate to Rancho Santa Elena, with lines like “Sigalert for an accident on the 22…everything backed up to the Crystal Cathedral” and the description of what seems to clearly be the Melrose Abbey Mortuary, which is “…crammed between a strip mall dotted with taquerias and a cement wall that separated the cemetery from the rush of the Santa Ana Freeway.” AWESOME!
After finishing the book, I read a few comments from people who were complaining that this is not actually a thriller. My response is “not only is it a thriller, it is a good one, and so much more!” Can’t wait for more from Alan Drew! (Neither can my husband.) Five enthusiastic stars!
NOTE: I appreciate that I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.