DECEMBER 24, 2017
CITY OF SAVIORS is the fourth entry in Rachel Howzell Hall’s series featuring LAPD Homicide Detective Elouise (“Lou”) Norton, and it definitely behooves readers to know the previous installments. While the new novel has its own freestanding plot — an investigation into the mysterious death of an elderly Vietnam vet in his junk-strewn South Central home — it is also filled with callbacks to earlier Norton cases, detailing the lingering fallout from the murder of her sister in Land of Shadows (2014), violent capture of an arsonist in Skies of Ash (2015), and from her bloody confrontation with a serial killer in Trail of Echoes (2016). Fresh developments in Lou’s personal and professional life — her fraught bonds with her mother and ex-husband, her burgeoning affair with a district attorney, her close rapport with her partner but otherwise tense relationship with the LAPD — all assume some familiarity with patterns laid down in the earlier books. Thus, if you are a fan of Hall’s and have been following Lou’s ongoing adventures, City of Saviors is a smooth and effective continuation; but if, on the other hand, you are new to the series, this novel might well pose some challenges.
That said, the case chronicled here is a baffling and engrossing one. Seventy-three-year-old Eugene Washington has been found dead in an armchair surrounded by a battalion of feral cats and a lifetime of squalid hoarding:
A wicker basket was filled with pens, pill vials, and wires. There were towers of shoe boxes, empty and full suitcases. Golf clubs stuck out of piles like tarnished silver gophers […] I pushed aside a hip-high pile of clothes to open the mirrored closet. Boxes, dresses, men’s suits, a fluff of gray fur … A small [cat’s] skull had been crushed beneath a stack of Del Monte crates.
Cops and forensic personnel are forced to don hazmat suits to sift through the mess. Lou suspects Washington was poisoned and pushes for a full investigation when others are content to chalk his death up to a bad heart and a blistering heat wave. Her intuition pays off when the medical records are processed and the lab work comes back, revealing a serious food allergy and a stomach full of the offending substance. Someone who knew better apparently fed Washington a cobbler at a church social that wound up killing him.
Lou and her partner Colin Taggert proceed to interview Washington’s nosy neighbors, his greedy girlfriend, and eventually the leaders of the Blessed Mission Ministries, an African-American mega-church run by glad-handing Bishop Solomon Tate and his sultry wife Charity. The plot thickens when it is discovered that, on top of the tainted cobbler, Washington had consumed another remarkable substance (whose identity I won’t reveal, except to say the revelation is truly chilling). In between grillings and stakeouts, Lou struggles to impose order on her chaotic personal life, as well as to recover, physically and mentally, from the battle in Trail of Echoes that almost killed her, leaving her with shrieking nightmares, an incipient addiction to opiates, and a head wound that just won’t heal. She also has to fend off the harassment of envious co-workers, who are trying to get her cashiered through accusations of lingering PTSD that she is allegedly trying to hide from her superiors. Hall juggles all these subplots with nimbleness and aplomb.
Lou Norton remains throughout a sly and engaging presence, her first-person narrative interspersed, as usual, with humorous asides about her colleagues’ peccadilloes and acid observations on the perilous fault lines of race, class, and gender in contemporary Los Angeles. She is painfully aware that the more venomous among her colleagues resent her “B.A. and J.D.,” her “Porsche and silk blouses […] I had used my boobs and color,” so they believe, “to be promoted from patrol to detective and, now, detective sergeant. Overrated. Underserving.” Though Lou handles herself capably in this professional minefield, the whispering campaign against her stings, making her loath ever to ask for help or to admit weakness. She even finds herself succumbing to a pervasive paranoia that leads her to resent her largely supportive partner:
I gave him the side eye. “What? Are folks gossiping about me again?”
He didn’t respond.
“I’m not hard. I’m too hard. I work too much. I don’t work enough […] It’s never enough for you white boys and your moving goal posts.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” His face had turned cherry red.
“None of you think I deserve —”
“None of you? I’m one of them now?”
The novel is filled with similarly barbed and frank dialogue, yet Lou can also be scathingly funny. While listening to two of Washington’s neighbors discussing the putative boon of gentrification, which has seen an influx of white hipsters into Leimert Park, she tartly observes that they “talked about potential white neighbors like the Munchkins talked about the Wizard of Oz.” Of course, not all of Lou’s humor has a racial edge. When she calls up the rap sheet for a suspicious character, her computer screen fills “with a list of offenses longer than Infinite Jest.” As this allusion suggests, Lou is a highly erudite narrator, her banter filled with references to a wide range of cultural icons and texts, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to The Terminator, Wu-Tang Clan to Blue Velvet. One never knows what bizarre citation she is likely to trot out next.
The most intriguing theme of City of Saviors, one that lends itself to much spiky commentary by our irascible narrator, is the rise of the mega-church phenomenon, especially in the black community. Bishop Tate and his wife come across as amiable but rapacious social climbers, gobbling up real estate to feed their swiftly metastasizing operation. Copies of Black Enterprise magazine litter their coffee table, and the foyer of their church features a giant “giving tree” with donors listed by pecuniary output as “cherubim,” “seraphim,” and so on. Bishop Tate even spouts reactionary law-and-order rhetoric about the glory days of the LAPD, which prompts a sharp retort from Lou: “Back then, in those good ol’ days of William Parker, our first police chief, Negroes couldn’t vote or enjoy a grilled cheese and Coke at Woolworth.” As with other novels in the series, Hall effectively uses a crime-story plot to explore the complexities of race and class in modern Los Angeles, her penetrating eye sparing no one, including her own heroine. Faced with the massive success of the Tates’ mega-church, Lou is compelled to confront the religious and socioeconomic assumptions inherited from her middle-class parents as well as the paradox of her own upward mobility.
As Hall remarked in a recent interview, the role of religion in the black community has been a subtext of her previous novels, and City of Saviors simply draws this theme to the fore. She also remarks on why she began writing crime fiction — because it helped her “make sense” of her experience growing up “in a dicey part of Los Angeles,” surrounded by “shootings and drug-dealing, […] yellow police tape and buzzing LAPD helicopter[s].” Yet very little of L.A. crime writing has featured African-American protagonists:
I wanted to see my friends and me in a series — as a cop, as her support, as a native Angeleno who grew up in my part of Los Angeles. I wanted to mash-up the stories that helped shape me as a writer […] Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan meets anything by Michael Connelly.
This is as precise a description of the unusual tone and effect of Hall’s novels as one could ask for: hard-boiled stories of black professional life, told from a female perspective. They are unique and compelling works, all four entries in the series, and I highly recommended them to fans of police procedurals and the L.A. noir subgenre in particular.