LAPD Det. Hayden Glass, the fractured protagonist at the center of Stephen Jay Schwartz's ambitious first thriller, "Boulevard," leads a double life. As a member of downtown's Robbery-Homicide division, he's "the elite of the elite." But as an intermittently recovering sex addict, he often engages in unseemly behavior more expected from the seamy characters he hunts for a living. Well aware of the fault line splitting his psyche, Glass at his best likes to think, "I'm more cop than addict." But at his worst, he seems to be hurtling into some bottomless abyss.
As a police detective working the meanest of L.A. streets, Glass knows where to go to indulge his sleaziest impulses -- like the Coral Reef, a seedy Hollywood place that rents rooms by the hour: "The two-story motel sat like a dirty old heroin addict nodding slowly, as if recognizing Hayden from a hazy night they'd shared long ago. The second-story windows had yellowing shades pulled half-mast like drugged-out eyes squinting at the streetlamps."
But now the Coral Reef's a crime scene. Glass' existential nightmare kicks into high gear as he investigates the grisly murder of a 20-year-old blond; a murder he senses was in some way intended as a message to him.
Soon Glass is seeing all sorts of personal connections between this grim tableau and other extravagant acts of carnage, such as the murder of a city councilman's niece, which Glass' superiors are determined to play as gang-related. The detective insists the bizarrely staged killings (and soon there are more, including some of his closest acquaintances) are the work of a single deranged perp doing his damnedest to shatter Glass, heart, mind and soul. Whoever the murderer is, he has intimate knowledge of the detective's past and present. Might the killer be a fellow 12-stepper, witness to Glass' supposedly anonymous recovery-group confessions? Or could it even be someone within the LAPD?
In any case, the detective -- mired in the muck of his own compulsive behavior -- seems bent on becoming the unknown psycho's accomplice in the destruction of whatever's left of his career.
He makes unwanted advances toward a woman colleague, thus alienating a potential source of support. He manufactures crime-scene evidence to lure a freelance female profiler onto his team -- only to keep her in the dark and then jeopardize her safety. He's scarily confrontational with his ailing ex-partner. It's not just a psycho-killer chasing Glass in circles; the detective has a cabal of personal demons tormenting him 24/7.
The details delight
Schwartz is skillful in rendering charcoal-sketch views of the darker corners of Sunset Boulevard, and he dazzles the reader with intermittent flashes of a poetic sensibility. He depicts the addict's patterns with grim authority and is well-versed in the words and ways of 12-step recovery. But his plot pulls you into scenes of violent gore you may wish you'd never read, in service of a plot and in pursuit of a villain that are both a bit hard to buy.
By the time all those demons come home to roost, in the blood-soaked lair of the monster-maniac behind all the killing, a grittier-than-average police-procedural novel has turned into something more resembling "The Silence of the Lambs" spliced into the "Saw" movies, with a bit of "Memento" for good measure. Glass turns out to have a secret so dark he's hidden it from his own consciousness, but by that point, you may have trouble much believing in or caring about him as he disregards every last vestige of departmental policy and even common sense.
Messy crime scene
By its final pages, "Boulevard" -- a book full of merit, by an author loaded with talent -- has succumbed to its protagonist's schizophrenic nature: Its grim character study has become a gruesome horror show, a panorama of severed limbs and shiny entrails: less a catharsis than a wallow. This reader, at least, can't help but wish the author -- a former film development exec -- had found his way into a 12-step writing program whose admonitions included "With creative freedom comes responsibility" and "Less is more."
"You'll be all right," a colleague assures Glass, as he pulls him away from "Boulevard's" ultimate, over-the-top crime-scene blood bath. That's all well and good for Glass -- but what about the rest of us?
Nolan is the editor of "Ross Macdonald's The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator."