LA Outlaws (Dutton)

By T. Jefferson Parker

The California crime novel is a specialized trope of the genre, and it takes a special skill of painting with sunlight and noir to pull it off well. One of the best California mystery writers, T. Jefferson Parker, also happens to be one of the better writers in the genre, period, and his new book, L.A. Outlaws, is both a celebration of life in the Southland while also a sobering look at its underbelly of cheap opportunism and corruption.

At once both a slick procedural and an ace first-person character study, Outlaws is the story of a Robin Hood-esque thief named Allison Murrietta, who claims to be the descendant of notorious bandit and California folk hero Joaquin Murrietta. When Allison's diamond heist is complicated by warring gangs and a clever fence, things quickly get sideways. And, of course, she falls for a cop investigating the case.

Parker is a whiz at not just writing the tough-yet sensitive men who are obligated to appear in mysteries, but at giving them weight and shading. His women are complex, too, tough and unconventional. Unlike many crime writers, Parker doesn't judge them for their weaknesses or exploit their sexuality. In short, Parker's women are allowed to be as entertaining and gloriously tragic as the boys. Allison is a wish-fulfillment lark made whole, stealing fast cars from scumbags and making life miserable for fast-food chains everywhere, and doing it all with aplomb. When you read her explanation of why she particularly enjoys robbing KFCs, you might just applaud.

L.A. Outlaws is not quite Parker's best book—that's probably the masterful and Edgar Award-winning Silent Joe—but this cool and heartbreaking page-turner is on a short list that grows longer every time Parker releases a new novel.