Saturday, October 25, 2014

Horizon Drive: A Novel Noir by J.M. Zen--the book review

Late one night in March of 1942, a Japanese-American family are rousted from their beds by two brutish strangers. It's only a few months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and like many West Coast families of similar ethnicity, the Matsuis have heard the stories of other families being taken in for questioning by government agents. As the Matsuis are driven off into the night, the father, Tadao, begins to realize that they are headed the wrong way to be going to FBI headquarters. Where, then, are they headed? And who are these people?

Before we learn the answer to this question the story jumps ahead in time to 1950. The first case of Detective Dalton Pope we witness, though, is of a completely different type, and this one is a suicide, not a murder. The death of Miss Norah Peele is a sad and self-evident one, but it serves the purpose of placing the story firmly in both time and space. Just a few years after the war, the country has another preoccupation--not Japanese invasion, but Communist takeover from within. And any one who has ever shown an interest in that ideology is being blacklisted by Hollywood.

Horizon Drive is a snapshot of this particular moment in the history of Los Angeles. Dalton Pope knows a bit about both ends of the social spectrum of the era. With a mother who drifted into prostitution, he is later adopted by members of the highest levels of L.A. society. Pope has an unorthodox approach to crime solving  that is more than a little at odds with the powers that be. He also has a partner who would rather land even a bit part in a movie than be a real life cop. As Pope and Briggs go about investigating the mysterious death of the Matsuis, whose undiscovered death comes to light when a road in the Hollywood Hills collapses, they also encounter personal challenges. Pope's comes in the form of a Japanese-American girl he once knew and loved before fate intervened to separate them. Helen's appearance in the story presents an opportunity for the novel to delve into the not so distant Japanese-American experience of the internment camps, which provides what I found to be the most moving passages of the book.

This debut novel has many strengths. Although J.M. Zen is the pen name of  two authors writing together, the narrative is very smooth. In addition to the compelling mystery, there are many interesting forensic details, and a great deal of lore about Los Angeles, which I particularly enjoyed as someone with a long connection to the region myself. Check out the J.M. Zen website, where you can watch the impressive trailer, learn more about the authors, and who knows, maybe even buy the book.

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