****The White Van

police, San Francisco, passersby

(photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Patrick Hoffman — This is a story about what happens when people get in way, way over their heads. At its center is 31-year-old Emily Rosario, a down-on-her-luck San Francisco woman living on society’s sharp edges. “She was pretty, but in a beat-up way. She would have been prettier in a different life.” One with fewer drugs and kinder men.

The story opens with Emily being picked up in a Tenderloin district dive bar. The Russian man who approaches her, doesn’t look dangerous. He has money, he’s clean. And he has crack. With these thin rationalizations, she accompanies him to his hotel near the airport. Soon she’s being fed more drugs than she’s bargained for. Three Russians keep her for a week in a state of semi-stupefaction, then, still foggy, send her into a bank to carry off the pretense of a robbery. Now in possession of a satchel containing $880,000, she stumbles out of the bank, but instead of climbing into the robbers’ waiting white van, she steps back into the bank, nabs the security guard’s gun, and sends him running. Confused, with sirens approaching, the van driver takes off. Emily emerges and runs away. The robbers have lost her and, of infinitely greater concern, the cash.

Meanwhile, Leo Elias and his younger partner Gary Trammell, members of the SFPD’s Gang Task Force cruise the streets. Elias’s recent string of lousy financial decisions is fast catching up with him. This robbery seems to Elias like a crime he might be able to solve. And in solving it, he means to steal the money for himself. Elias draws Trammell in, and as they sink deeper and deeper into a case they have no authority to investigate, Elias acts crazier and crazier. Trammell, unsure what to do, decides to just go along, at least for a while.

Emily can’t quite make up her mind to leave San Francisco, but the Russians and the two increasingly desperate cops are on her trail. A private detective has staked out her crib, and if any of her neighbors even suspect what’s in that bag she never lets out of her sight, her life will be over in a finger-snap.

Saying much more would spoil Patrick Hoffman’s well-planned plot twists, but suffice it to say, they keep coming. He has lived in San Francisco and worked as an investigator, and his knowledge of the city and its geography, his familiarity with police procedures, and—even better—his understanding of police attitudes is totally convincing. Here’s an example: “Delgado [the police union representative] leaned toward Elias and whispered, ‘There were a couple cameras in the alley, but none of them caught the incident. Which is to say, your memory of what happened is the correct version.’” He also understands the psychology of people in trouble. Through his obsessive attention to their state of mind, he puts readers right in both Elias’s and Emily’s heads as the tension and the stakes continue to mount.

This terrific debut novel is a true page-turner. Start reading this book and you won’t want to stop.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.