Lee Goldberg's Lost Hills is not only the first book in what promises to be a superb series — it's also that rare novel in which the formulaic elements of mainstream police procedurals (blood, violence and forensic science) share narrative space with a unique female protagonist. All that, and it's also a love letter to the chaos and diversity of California.
Deputy Eve Ronin is a newly-minted homicide detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Yes, she's capable and she wanted the job — but she knows (and her colleagues know) that the department hired her to buff its troubled image after a video of her arresting a famous actor went viral.
Ronin is young and relatively inexperienced, but that's not her worst problem. Her worst problem is that she's a woman. Her colleagues resent her and make fun of the nickname the press gave her, Deathfist. They think she got the job because she's a media darling and do nothing to hide their feelings. Ronin's first case gives her a chance to prove herself: Someone has murdered a mother and her two children in their home. The floor and walls of the house are covered in blood, but the bodies are missing. With the help of her partner, who is about to retire, Ronin must find the killer and the bodies while battling everyone who resents her, raging fires that threaten to consume Los Angeles, her mother, and her own insecurities.
The first thing that makes Lost Hills different from the dozens of procedurals that are published every month is that Goldberg shows us the brutal aftermath of murder. This is a novel full of blood, where forensic experts discuss slashed throats, stabbing, and dissecting bodies in a bathtub. There is a lot of research behind Goldberg's words, and that brutality and cruelty lends an emotional heft to the killings. The gory crime scenes are also a test for Ronin, who hasn't been exposed to blood in that context before:
There were blood-soaked dish sponges and several blood-smeared bottles of Clorox on the counter and in the sink. The smell of cleanser and motor oil was overpowering and, combined with the bloody tableau, repulsive. She fought her gag reflex, willing her muscles to relax. She would not humiliate herself, and contaminate the crime scene, by vomiting.
The second element that sets this novel apart from the rest is Ronin herself. She's strong and complex, heroic but imperfect, professional but vulnerable. It's through her experiences that Goldberg illuminates the ways rampant sexism can affect everything from our perceptions of a crime to the way that crime is investigated — and how most police departments are still boys' clubs. This is something her partner knows and proves to her time again, even when he's trying to help:
"So you're saying we'll get a warrant because of your skill at smoke and mirrors and your established relationships with the ADA and the judge," she said. "It's not about my age, sex, inexperience, and notoriety."
"It's totally about your age, sex, inexperience, and notoriety."
Lost Hills is an enjoyable read that shows Goldberg, a two-time Edgar Award winner, at the top of his game. The prose is lean and the pacing is superb. There is no filler here; every sentence earns the space it occupies on the page. The dialogue is never boring and always helps push the action forward — the only time it moves away from the case is when Ronin has to talk to her mother, an aging small-time actress whose dreams of becoming a star are now tied to her daughter's celebrity and constant appearances on the news. Her mother mentions the case occasionally — but only because she's interested in turning it into a TV show. And despite veering away from the main plot, these conversations are as sad as they are hilarious; embodying the broken dream aesthetic of the many who never made it in Hollywood.
There are a lot of series out there, but Eve Ronin and Goldberg's fast-paced prose should put this one on the radar of every crime fiction fan.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.