Safe is the new novel by an author who manages to combine brave and uncompromising writing with page-turning, compulsive plots. American writer Ryan Gatiss made a name for himself with his previous novel, All Involved, a kaleidoscopic narrative set amongst the LA riots of 1992. Safe shares some DNA with that book but it sharpens its focus in comparison to the broader palette of its predecessor.
As smart a piece of crime fiction as you’ll read all year
The story takes place in Los Angeles in 2008, just as the housing crisis hit, and it focuses on Ricky Mendoza Jr, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost is a legitimate safe-cracker by trade, busting into the safes of gangs on behalf of the DEA, the FBI or any other government organisation. The narrative is split between Ghost and Glasses, a mid-level drug- runner who has meanwhile cut his own deal with the DEA, and is walking a tightrope as a result.
The book opens with Ghost deciding to skim money out of a gang’s safe, from under the nose of the DEA, and to give it to people suffering in the economic downturn. He’s a recovering cancer sufferer and addict and wants to atone for past misdemeanours, even if it means bringing the wrath of the authorities and the Mexican and Californian drug gangs down on him. And that’s where Glasses comes in, given the task by his drug lord bosses of recovering the money and holding the thief accountable. What follows is as smart a piece of crime fiction as you’ll read all year, as the bigger competing forces gradually squeeze Gattis’ two central characters unntil they’re fit to burst.
The tension is palpable from the first page, and Gattis has a poet’s ear for street talk and the attention to telling detail that really makes the prose zing along on the page. The complex, interconnected world of drug gangs and those out to catch them is brilliantly depicted, and this whole novel exists in a moral grey area, full of characters trying to do the right thing and protect those they love in impossible circumstances.
Safe, Ryan Gatiss, out now (Picador, £12.99)