Ivy Pochoda’s West Adams mystery brings the victims, not the killer, to life
On a sweltering Thursday afternoon, the sun-bleached stretch of Western Avenue just north of Interstate 10 is a ghost town. The freeway carries a smattering of cars; the 24-hour taco stand Chabalita is deserted. I’m on a socially distanced walk with the novelist Ivy Pochoda, and it’s a little surreal. We are each the first person the other has interacted with at length, face-to-face, for weeks.
Across the street, Pochoda spies a prostitute — thigh-high skirt, Lucite heels, the “streetwalker” outfit familiar from countless movies. Perhaps spooked by us, she darts around the corner. For a number of blocks, until we cut into Jefferson Park’s leafy side streets, we see only the city’s left-behind: a couple of homeless people as we cross the 10, a food delivery guy on his bike.
Western Avenue is the artery of Pochoda’s haunting new noir, which is “very loosely based,” the author says, on the real case of the killer known as “Grim Sleeper.” Unlike most serial killer novels, “These Women” centers on the victims, nearly all prostitutes and women of color, some of them drug users, all of them powerless. Only their families are compelled to seek justice for the dead — or at least an acknowledgement of their pain from an unmotivated police force and an indifferent public.
The author, a native of New York who moved to L.A. in 2009, has always been drawn to urban battlegrounds in which crime and gentrification are equally pressing threats. In “Visitation Street,” chosen by Dennis Lehane for his eponymous imprint in 2013, two teenage girls disappear in New York Harbor — a mystery that ricochets through their changing Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook. “Wonder Valley” pokes around a Joshua Tree-adjacent commune and Los Angeles’ Skid Row. (There was also a 2009 foray into romantic suspense, “The Art of Disappearing.”) This time, Pochoda wanted to write a “female-forward story,” one we don’t hear enough.
“I was a little tired of the fetishization of serial killers,” she says. In the lore, the podcasts, the exhaustive Wikis, the murderer always eclipses the victims. Pochoda cites the once-uncrackable case of the Golden State Killer, which the writer Michelle McNamara doggedly pursued in her posthumously published book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” (Suspect Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in 2018.)
“When I found out who he was, it was like —” Pochoda simply shrugs as she walks. The book was “incredible,” she says, but the killer “was just some guy. And we always know that. It’s not like on TV. [It’s] not ‘Dexter’ or ‘Mindhunter’ or whatever the current show is. He’s some guy you didn’t notice.”
“These Women” doesn’t hinge on the killer’s identity or the logistics of catching him. Instead, the central question is whether anyone will ever listen to the women, victims or survivors. Especially when, after an inexplicable 15-year break, the murders start again.
In fine-tuned and affecting prose, Pochoda captures the women’s voices, the way they use cracked humor or street smarts as coping mechanisms. Feelia Jefferies opens the novel in 1999, recounting from her hospital bed her near-fatal encounter with a man who, unlike most in her business, was “talking at me polite. Like I’m a person.”
Pochoda then jumps to 2014; Dorian Williams runs a fish shack that provides a respite for “the women on the stroll,” as well as the occasional gaggle of high-school girls, who trigger memories of her daughter Lecia, slaughtered 15 years ago. One of the fish shack regulars, Kathy, regales Dorian with stories from the street. Julianna Vargas, whom Lecia once babysat, now gives lap dances at a dismal club and takes photographs of her friends on the side. Marella Colwin, Julianna’s next-door neighbor, is an aspiring artist drawn to gritty imagery. They all long to erase something from the past, a moment when life wrenched in the wrong direction.
In “These Women” Pochoda shrewdly balances sturdy genre conventions with challenging innovations. Like many a fictional detective, Essie Perry has an uncanny knack for plucking out leads from a proverbial haystack, but she is more memorable than most. A barely five-foot-tall Latina, Perry constantly snaps gum, zips around on a bicycle, and asks unnerving questions that sound like non sequiturs. Inside and out, she has more in common with the victims than she does with her LAPD colleagues — a quality that ultimately helps her unlock the case.
As she stitches together the proof that the killer has awoken from his “nap,” Perry ruminates on the dangers of sharing evidence with the public — and with fellow cops. “What do you do with information? What do you do about certainty? Both are easily stolen and easily corrupted. Release the information the wrong way to the wrong people and it will be distorted, destroyed, misused, or abused.”
Walking briskly in her white sneakers and wide-legged jeans, Pochoda is familiar with the largely African American Jefferson Park and surrounding areas. She points out businesses that she re-created with some alterations in the book, including a Belizean fish shack and a boxing studio, both closed for shelter-in-place. Nearby is the West Adams house she and her husband bought six years ago, where she’s been home-schooling her 5-year-old daughter, Loretta.
“Now, with quarantine, I walk this beat of the book every day,” she says. “It’s just what I do for exercise.” As we cut into the more well-heeled Arlington Heights, scraggly bushes and chain-link fences give way to rose gardens and restored Craftsman homes. A clutch of chickens roams the sidewalk, but people are few and far between. Some wave from their porches or pass by on the sidewalk, their eyes sizing us up above their masks.
Pochoda experienced a loss this year unrelated to the pandemic — a loss she shares with her adopted city, because it pertains not to one of the forgotten Angelenos she brought to life in “These Women” but one of its most famous citizens. Before the shocking death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi in January, Pochoda had been collaborating with him on a series of middle-grade books that he wanted to write “for his daughters,” she says. The first, “Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof” was published last year; she is currently working on revisions for the second.
She and Bryant had frequently exchanged text messages about athletes they admired (in her former life, Pochoda was a professional squash player) as well as movies. In one of his last texts to her, Bryant jokingly asked her to break him out of the theater where he was trapped watching “Cats.”
The week before he died, they had settled a disagreement about how the second book should end. She says Bryant wanted her “to do what I wanted to do” as a collaborator, “but there were a few touchstones you always had to hit.” One of them “was that not everything has to be happy. There can also be struggle.” So she wrote the ending they had agreed on, but “it was so hard to write.” Everywhere in the text, his spirit lingered — in the characters, and in the belief that sports can save the world.
It’s interesting to imagine someone as powerful as Bryant somehow crossing paths with the characters of “These Women,” influencing their lives as both a role model and a philanthropist. Bryant’s books were his passion projects, Pochoda says — a place to bring his overarching vision to life. “When I come across one of his weird ideas — which I love — it almost brings me to tears.”
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