Mark Haskell Smith
Black Cat Press: 352 pp., $14 paper
The first sentence of "Baked," the new thriller by Mark Haskell Smith, features a four-letter profanity. The second sentence goes: "He walked out of his house and into the white-light white heat of a bullet exploding out of a handgun…" — and the reader rests secure in the certainty that, whatever else it may or may not achieve, this narrative won't dither. Although "Baked" features odes to the virtues and variety of marijuana and not just murder and mayhem, its effect is rarely mellow. Here is a wickedly funny if not entirely successful or consistent blast of a book.
The hero, Miro Basinas, is the guy on the wrong end of that hot lead. Moments later, face down in the dirt, Miro finds the words "Elephant Crush" flashing through his mind. With this narrative seed planted, Haskell Smith flashes Miro, and the reader, back to the time before the bullet.
Mild-mannered Miro lives in Los Angeles. He's an underground botanist with "an alt rocker vibe." In his apartment, he cultivates artisanal marijuana that he sells to "well-heeled hipsters who wanted to know they weren't just smoking weed, but were enjoying a rarefied singular experience."
Miro grows righteous stuff. He's an American visionary with big dreams for his latest mango-tinged leaf, the one he calls Elephant Crush. He travels to Amsterdam and enters the Cannabis Cup, "the Olympics of weed, the World Cup of marijuana." This sounds like something only a truly deranged fictioneer could invent, but it's factual. The real Cannabis Cup does indeed take place in Amsterdam each year. It's the state fair for stoners, and winning means millions of dollars.
In "Baked," Miro achieves this holy grail, whereupon back in L.A. lots of people suddenly get interested in him and his magical new product. Here's one of them: "Shamus Noriega was only half Salvadoran. His father was an Irish merchant seaman turned construction worker turned bartender turned Latina impregnator turned deportation victim who was sent back to Cork when Shamus was only five."
It's the "only five" that's so good. Haskell Smith knows how to introduce a character, and he goes on to show how Shamus is now an especially ruthless, violent gangster with a picture of pastoral Irish greensward on his bedroom wall and a fondness for stealing artwork from his victims. It's a bullet from Shamus' gun that smites Miro in the novel's Sentence No. 2. Standing behind Shamus, though, is Vincent (a.k.a. Vincent " Starbucks"), a groovy Prius-driving impresario who sees big things in the future of semi-legalized pot and has a business plan that apes Wal-Mart's. Naturally he wants Elephant Crush. Hence, his orders to Shamus, whose assassination attempt fails.
Post-bullet complications begin to build, featuring Shamus' dumb sidekicks, a horny young Mormon who finds his true mission selling tacos out of a truck, a buff paramedic who gets her kicks from sexual domination and a no-nonsense Korean American LAPD detective named Cho who drives "a burnt-sienna-colored Crown Vic."
Haskell Smith loves social jostling and putting his people in situations that push the buttons of their insecurities.
Unfortunately, though. "Baked" also has an agenda, a somewhat wishy-washy pro-pot message that sits at odds with Haskell Smith's satiric eye and the violent rampage he renders with such deadpan glee. The novel is a mixed bag then, featuring a fast-moving multilayered plot, prose that has a smart, jazzy swing, and moments of shivery unease while probing the tender areas of human randomness that crime shocks open. But the broad-sweep social theory feels too pat, and Miro Basinas, as a character, never springs from the page with quite the same startling fun or indeed reality, as Shamus Noriega. That's not surprising. Bad hats, after all, are usually more fun to wear.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place." He writes Paperback Writers, which appears at http://www.latimes.com/books.