A good Los Angeles police thriller is like a good episode of “Hunter,” the old television series from the 1980s that centered on two LAPD homicide detectives. The formula for one of these L.A. thrillers requires a police duo—preferably a male/female team with just the right amount of sexual tension between them—who forage the dregs of the city in search of the mastermind who murdered some beautiful would-be actress. And the best of these mysteries include run-ins with worn-out prostitutes from Venice Beach and a Beverly Hills wife wearing a peach-colored negligee at noon. With all the mystique and seediness L.A. has to offer, it’s almost impossible not to enjoy the clichéd images that come hand-in-hand with the glamorous setting. Plus, when Sgt. Hunter drove home in his police-issued sedan at the end of an episode, he always looked good against the L.A. sunset.
In his newest thriller, Never Fear, author Scott Frost, who only recently moved to Missoula from L.A., offers his addition to the genre with a novel that more than satisfies Southern California standards for suspense. Frost, a former writer for the “Twin Peaks” television series, introduces us to Pasadena homicide detective and single mom Alex Delillo, who’s characterized by her calm restraint in even the most trying situations.
The plot begins when someone calls Delillo about the body of an unidentified man with a single gunshot to the head. Delillo’s informed of the apparent suicide because she’s the last person the dead man tried to contact the night he died. When she goes to identify him, she comes face to face with the spitting image of her father—an old journeyman actor who abandoned her and her mother more than 30 years prior. The mystery man turns out to be the half-brother Delillo never knew, and he’s turned up dead after trying to contact her for the first time. LAPD insists the case is an open-and-shut suicide, but Delillo is pretty sure there’s more to the story. (There’s always more to these stories.)
The more is this: As Delillo begins to dig, she becomes convinced that not only was her half-brother murdered, but that the father she hasn’t heard from since she was 5 might somehow be involved. “I don’t know what [my father’s] secrets were…,” Delillio thinks to herself. “What I know for sure is what’s left on the screen—a perfect smile, dark hair, and a voice that sounds just a little too high for his good looks. And I also know that without proof to the contrary, I don’t believe my father was one of the lucky people.”
Her search leads to the “River Killings,” an unsolved serial murder case from the 1970s, which her half-brother was researching before his death. Delillo feels her brother might have discovered something about the case that may have gotten him murdered. She and her partner, Detective Dylan Harrison, for whom she has more than just a passing fancy, reopen the River Killer case and attempt to find the person who, 17 years before, murdered three young women and dumped their bodies in the Los Angeles River. By the way, the only suspect ever questioned in the case was Delillo’s father.
What makes Never Fear engaging is both the unfolding of the murder mystery that takes Delillo and Harrison all over the streets of Los Angeles, and the personal struggle Delillo faces at every turn. She learns more and remembers more about her abusive father without ever becoming an emotional mess. She’ll coolly say to Harrison, with one hand on her Glock, “The past isn’t as dead as it seems.” Frost is deft at balancing his two themes. He complicates the murder mystery with surprising turns without ever losing sight of the end result, and he never allows Delillo’s personal involvement to get too tear-jerky. In fact it’s intriguing, and perhaps slightly frightening, when Delillo experiences recurring nightmares about hiding in her closet as a little girl while her father beat her mother. It all makes for a meatier story, not one full of melodrama.
Never Fear is a worthy installment in the modern L.A. thriller genre. Without abusing the Los Angles images, Frost uses them to his advantage—the neon signs of the Sunset Strip, fading skylines at dusk, and even a washed-up actress wearing a bit too much makeup. And in Delillo, he’s created a realistic middle-aged single mom/cop who traverses this landscape as ruthlessly and as sexily as if she were doing it behind the wheel of a police-issued sedan.
Scott Frost reads from and signs copies of Never Fear at Fact & Fiction Friday, Aug. 4, at 5 PM.