****A Better Goodbye

doorbell, red

(photo: Thomas Hawk, creative commons license)

By John Schulian – If you’ve wondered what goes on in those sketchy “massage” parlors, this expertly written and well paced debut thriller is your chance to find out. Set in Los Angeles on the bitter fringes of the entertainment industry and reeking of fake glamour, the story pulls you into its world from the opening chapter. It’s classic noir, dealing with people who don’t have much going for them who will probably never go far. Schulian has done a remarkable job recreating their lonely world, an inspiration he describes in this interview.

A multiple point-of-view story, the principal characters are Jenny Yee, a Korean college student earning tuition money in the massage business, Scott Crandall, a washed-up out-of-shape television actor whose main source of income is the massage business he owns, his would-be friend Onus DuPree, and Nick Pafko, a former boxer still haunted by the freak accident that killed an opponent when the poor sap hit the ropes exactly wrong.

Scott was glad to hire Jenny, as his last Asian girl was leaving, and in their business he needed someone to please the “rice chasers.” Meanwhile, her priority is a new job where there is someone to provide security. A string of vicious massage parlor robberies has made the women nervous. An out-of-work ex-boxer who will also keep the books sounds like just what Scott needs. Nick can’t quite get over being offended to be working in a jack shack, but it soon becomes obvious the girls need him.

Always playing the angles, Scott has no respect for the girls, for Nick, or, for that matter himself. “What a f— town. Shake a tree and whores fell out of it. Whores and actors, like there was any difference between the two.” Scott is drifting into a closer orbit with his scary friend DuPree, putting everyone at increased risk—not from the cops or any of the other forces of order, but from the climate of violence DuPree creates, like a mountain making its own weather.

One thing about this book is you learn a whole new vocabulary [!] and a lot about a subculture of desperate young women. IRL erotic massage is estimated to be a $1 billion a year business in the United States, often involving immigrant women with few choices. The exploitation isn’t a surprise, nor is the potential for violence, but Schulian’s uncanny ability to get into the minds of these quite different individuals makes for a compelling read.

He comes by his skills honestly, with respect to character development and a driving storyline. Although this is his first novel, he has published short stories, and his main career has been as a Hollywood scriptwriter, working for television programs such as L.A. Law, Miami Vice, and JAGS. He co-created Xena: Warrior Princess—for a while the world’s foremost syndicated TV series. He has been a sports and magazine writer and has edited two anthologies of writing about boxing, which no doubt contributed to the authenticity of his character Nick’s voice.

The book title comes from a Patty Griffin song, “And I wonder where you are, And if the pain ends when you die, And I wonder if there was some better way to say goodbye.” A knockout.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.