Ken Mercer: East on Sunset

Ken Mercer wrote one of my favorite debut novels of last year, Slow Fire, about damaged cop Will Magowan who had taken on the job of sheriff in a tiny California town. It felt very new and original to me. In this outing, Mercer returns Will to LA, which simply by default is a less original proposition, already being seriously occupied by Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, among many others. Mercer has the chops of these better known folks, though, and his narrative skills are the equal to the big boys. The book has a type of creepy Marcus Sakey type premise (another writer Mercer has some kinship with). Will has returned to his wife as they continue to heal their damaged relationship after the death of their son, Will’s drug addiction and recovery, and his dismissal from the LAPD, something that continues to have a long tail in his life. The Sakey-esque part is taking the somewhat “normal” couple of Will and Laurie and introducing a stone psycho into their relationship and family life.

Erik Crandall, a drug dealer Will had put away during some of his last days as a cop, has gotten out of prison, muscled up on steroids, with a tattoo of eyes on the back of his bald head (nice, creepy touch) and a whole lot of anger. The man is huge and he lumbers around LA working his stress ball, storing fortunes out of Chinese fortune cookies in his wallet, and plotting his revenge on Will, as he’s certain Will stole some of his drugs during the bust. More than revenge, Erik wants the money. The steroids and his obvious lack of innate intelligence don’t really make for clear thinking on his part, but he’s a pretty scary guy, and the way he stalks Will and Laurie is nothing but terrifying. I was resisting the book up to a certain point, as I wanted Will alone and out in the countryside again dealing with meth heads, but Mercer has a wicked narrative gift and the story eventually swept me away.

While Will works a new job as security for the LA Dodgers at their ballpark (which is a great background piece of writing and a wonderful addition to the book) he’s obviously distracted with worry about Laurie and about trying to keep Erik out of his life. His efforts to do so land him in some serious trouble but it’s all of a piece with the noir tone of the novel, which posits, as all true noir books do, that there are no systems untouched by corruption. Will is working basically as a lone wolf as he’s on the outs with the LAPD, which adds to the noir tone. What Mercer also possesses is a way with character – Will is someone you’ll root for – and a real way with a narrative. By the end of the book I couldn’t stop reading, and when I finished I was eager to see where Will goes next. Mercer is a wonderful new talent.