The Loneliest Places
by Keith Edward Vaughn
Genre: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense / Crime
Print Length: 290 pages
Reviewed by Erin Britton
Los Angeles has never been more alluring or deadly.
With despicable crimes, shameless corruption, eclectic characters, and the beating heart of the city at its center, Keith Edward Vaughn’s debut novel The Loneliest Places offers an atmospheric slice of LA noir in a similar vein to the work of James Ellroy or Michael Connelly. In highlighting the darker side of the City of Angels, he evocatively shines a light on the evil that lurks in the shadows caused by even the brightest sunshine.
Ellis Dunaway prefers cruising LA in his Porsche, looking to score some coke, and maybe even dedicating a bit of time to pursuing his dead-end screenwriting career. He does not want to work for the private detective agency he inherited from his father. But when a former associate of his old man (and his own current coke dealer) asks for a professional favor, he finds that he’s in no position to refuse.
Club owner Terry Montero explains that he agreed to let a friend named Douglas—who is subsequently downgraded to a colleague, and then to an associate, which explains his lack of a surname—stay at his Malibu cottage for a couple of days until a domestic dispute blew over. That was three weeks ago and Montero hasn’t heard from Douglas since, meaning he doesn’t know if the guy ever made it to the cottage or if he is still there.
Montero wants Ellis to drive out to Malibu and check on the situation with Douglas: “this is your area of expertise. It’s what you do—drive around and spy on people and stuff.” Given that Douglas has lots of drugs and money, as well as a reputation for hanging out with all the leading porn stars, Ellis immediately suspects that there is murky business afoot, but he owes Montero and so agrees to take the case.
Still, for all his trepidation, Ellis has no real idea what he’s getting himself into.
It quickly emerges that Douglas, in addition to being inexplicably missing, has links to the Black Fist, “a South American drug cartel that’s been operating in Los Angeles since the seventies.” The cartel started out with drugs and prostitution and then expanded to nearly every black market in California—“drugs, guns, babies, body parts, bootleg DVDs, you name it”—and they’re definitely not to be messed with.
As Ellis crisscrosses Los Angles and neighboring areas in his inherited Porsche while searching for Douglas, the levels of danger and deception that he encounters continually increase. His attempts to unravel the tangled mess associated with Douglas’s disappearance take him to some dangerous places and introduce him to some depraved characters, and every new lead he uncovers seems to draw him closer to a secret from his own past.
Keith Edward Vaughn brings the city of Los Angeles and its environs vividly to life in The Loneliest Places, so much so that LA becomes a key character in its own right. From the glitz and sleaze of Hollywood to the glamour and depravity of organized crime, Vaughn highlights the dichotomies that abound in La-La Land. There’s plenty of money and influence on display, but also plenty of subservience and poverty, both literal and moral.
As an established, if rather reluctant, private detective who previously enjoyed a brief career writing for a network television show, Ellis has a foot in both the showbiz camp and the criminal underworld of Los Angeles. What’s more, through his late father’s connections with the LAPD, he has access to information and resources that provide him with an even clearer picture of all the nefarious things going on in the city.
Ellis might be a pretty good detective—when he sobers up for long enough to start putting things together, that is—but he’s also a pretty lousy person, particularly in terms of his dealings with former flames and current employees. The failure of his Hollywood career has left him bitter, while the success of former friends has left him envious, and he can’t seem to pull himself together for long enough to make any improvements.
However, agreeing to investigate Douglas’s disappearance forces Ellis out of his established malaise and into precarious action, and Vaughn provides the perfect background soundtrack for him doing so. Indeed, music is very important both to Ellis and to the atmosphere of the novel as a whole, and the featured tracks help set the tone and drive the pace of the story.
So too does the mystery behind Montero and pretty much everyone else being “ghosted” by the elusive Douglas. There are plenty of twists and turns to the case, as well as a fair number of suspicious characters and distracting red herrings, and Ellis pursues his investigation in true Philip Marlow style: grudgingly and in a drug- and booze-fueled haze. Still, he surprises himself with how good of a detective he actually is, even if the odds of getting to the bottom of everything are very much stacked against him.
The Loneliest Places is a modern slice of hardboiled noir set in a version of LA that is both familiarly terrible and unexpectedly uplifting. The crime is a tough one to crack, and, as the focal detective, Ellis Dunaway proves to be a surprisingly tenacious and insightful investigator. As the case proceeds, there’s violence and sleaze aplenty, and it all makes for an action-packed story.
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