The White Van by Patrick Hoffman (Grove/Atlantic, Sept. 2014)-Emily Rosario is 31 years old, and addicted to crack. When she meets a Russian man in a bar and he invites her back to his hotel, ostensibly to take drugs, she goes with him. It isn’t smart and she knows it isn’t, but her habit won’t let her say no. Soon she realizes drugs aren’t the only thing on the menu. After days of being dosed with crack and various other drugs by the Russian, an old woman who calls herself Sophia, and a man named Georgy, she’s put in disguise, a bomb is handcuffed to her hand, and she’s sent by her captors into a San Francisco bank to rob it.
But…Emily does the unexpected. Her kidnappers thought they’d done everything right, so when Emily leaves the bank, with almost $900,000 in tow, there in shock when, instead of getting in the white van that took her there, she runs, and keeps running.
Meanwhile, SFPD cop Leo Elias is falling apart. He’s an alcoholic, he’s on the verge of losing his house and his marriage, and he envies everything about his rookie partner, Sam Trammell, from his age to his looks. Everyone from the street kids that he interacts with each day to his fellow cops call him “Plastic Face” for the mask of fake toughness that he dons so effectively. He has no idea when or how his life started going off the rails, when this feeling of desperateness started leaking in, but his breaking point is near. He can feel it. When he hears of the bank heist, and the amount of money stolen, he resolves to find it, and take it for himself. That will solve all of his problems, right?
It’s very easy to slot each of these characters into stereotypes: an irresponsible addict, a crooked cop, etc, but Hoffman never lets that happen. Emily is complex and very, very tough and resourceful. She longs for a better life, even as her addiction drives many of her actions. Elias is very, very unsympathetic at first, but strangely, as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble, even if you can’t condone his actions, you can see how someone so desperate can go so low. The Russian that first lures Emily back to the hotel carries an undeniable undercurrent of sadness and futility. It’s very evident he doesn’t want to do this horrible thing, but later you find out why he does. Even Sophia, who looks like everyone’s sweet grandma, yet casually talks about cutting off body parts, isn’t completely without a soul.
There’s no pure black and white in this book, and Hoffman presents his players, and their actions, in spare prose that somehow maximizes some of the inevitable tragedy that befalls them. Lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, you may be surprised. There’s light here, and it’s quickly apparent that it lies in the broken, yet hopeful Emily.
You’ll want to set aside a few hours for this noir gem. It’s a quick, gritty, unputdownable book, and you’ll probably finish it in one sitting. Crime lovers won’t want to miss this one.