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Dark Passages: Writers lost and found

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The comeback: Publishing as a whole is affected by this particular scourge, but genre fiction in particular suffers from this plight in the most obvious way. It's when a writer appears, sometimes with considerable fanfare, with a new series, garnering an audience with each successive volume. The problem is, if the audience isn't big enough, or the money paid out to said writer doesn't produce expected sales, the publisher may cancel the series after just two or three books (or, in truly worst-case scenarios, after just one). Another company may pick up the slack for a variable advance, or the writer strikes out with new territory, often under a pen name. Or in many instances, the writer simply disappears, his or her career over.

Lately, a handful of writers have sidestepped the "whatever happened to…?" parlor game by publishing new books years after they were last heard from, book-wise. Katy Munger, whose series featuring bounty hunter Casey Jones was tougher, saltier and more Southern than Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum bestsellers, has come back under a new name (Chaz McGee), new premise (paranormals featuring an angst-ridden detective who happens to be dead) and a new publisher. The writer formerly known as Conrad Haynes, author of several mysteries aping Nero Wolfe, has now, under his real name of Dana Haynes, published "Crashers" (St. Martin's: 352 pp. $24.99 hardcover) a high-concept thriller featuring plane-crash investigators.

Jodi Compton, however, may be the most stubborn of the "lost and found writers." She has a new publisher, and a new series but has kept her real name and the same authorial voice, more or less. Her first series, cut short after two books, featured Minnesota police detective Sarah Pribek, whose ability to keep up with her male peers, inscrutable personality and complicated relationship with her husband (and fellow cop) Michael made her seem prickly, but all the more winning. If Compton's plotting in "The 37th Hour" (2005) and "Sympathy Between Humans" (2006) faltered in places, her treatments of setting and characterization more than compensated.

But inscrutable heroines are more in vogue, thanks to a wonderful little fictional phenom named Lisbeth Salander. Something tells me that if Hailey Cain, the 23-year-old protagonist of Compton's new novel "Hailey's War" (Shaye Areheart: 286 pp., $22.99) and Salander ever met, they'd circle around, size each other up and accept some grudging mutual respect that might, with a lot of time, develop into mutual loyalty. Woe to those who think Hailey is some knockoff; as Compton makes clear very early on, she is a creature very much of her own making, singing a metaphorical tune few, if any, can hear.

We first meet Hailey in San Francisco, where she works as a bike messenger because the back-and-forth routine provides a perfect soothing balm to a lifetime of secrets that first washed her out of West Point — "just two months before [she] would have graduated and become a second lieutenant in the United States Army" — and then, more recently, caused her to escape Los Angeles, "a place for people like me, young people raised on high-fructose corn syrup, long on energy and short on a sense of history." Left behind is her cousin CJ, a music producer on the rise with whom she has a not-exactly-brotherly relationship.

She's done all the things bright young things are supposed to do — drugs, clubs, aimless sex — but Hailey's vague life masks a tightly coiled spring in need of the slimmest provocation to uncoil at a speedy clip. The provocation comes in the form of Serena Delgadillo, a high school friend-turned-close confidante, a smart young girl transformed into the head of an all-female Latino gang on L.A.'s East Side. Serena needs a favor, which in la vida loca is routine — escort a young woman across the border to Mexico — but once Hailey accepts it proves to be anything but. The young woman is pregnant, for one, and she's not particularly thankful for her taciturn new driver. Then comes the ambush. And then, many weeks later, comes Hailey's quest to find out why the job went so bad and who might have set her up.

For those looking for a plot-driven, fast-paced spectacle, "Hailey's War" is not the book for you, and a late-game deus ex machina comes off less dramatic and more as an irritant. But, as before, Compton demonstrates deep understanding of all her characters, from the enigmatic Hailey to the chattery sucias whom Serena alternately mothers and lords over, the charming and driven CJ to the unexpected well of kindness bestowed upon Hailey by gangsters of various ethnic and socioeconomic stripes. Her vision of California, North and South, isn't the stylized flash seen on reality television (thank God), but something richer and more subtle, full of the requisite nihilism but, just around a corner or two, just as full of far older bonds of love and loyalty playing out on a canvas where people do terrible things for reasons they don't always know.

At the center is Hailey, clamping down on secrets she has good reason to keep but just as good reason to share, liable to stay silent in one milieu and talk of the Book of Jonah, of a man who "doesn't seem scared of anything, even when he should be" because both states apply equally well to her state of being.

Most of all, "Hailey's War" serves as a metaphor for dreams so close to realization but for a fault line or two. Weaker hearts would flinch, then crack. But Hailey, instead, summons her inner soldier, the one that tells her, no matter what perilous situation she's in, to paraphrase Bob Marley, she has to get up, stand up, stand up for her life — a better and truer test of heroism.

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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