Author Tom Epperson (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
If I were a damsel in distress fleeing a past and people who wanted me dead, like Gina Cicala in the modern noir thriller "Sailor" by Tom Epperson, I'd want to meet a guy like Gray too. And if I were Gray, a mysterious stranger with a tortured past, the kind of guy who rescues dogs from their abusive owners, meeting an on-the-lam beautiful woman with a preternaturally bright son would just make perfect sense.
And meet they do when Gina rolls into King Beach, a fictionalized coastal town in Southern California whose location beneath the LAX takeoff route is a thinly disguised Playa Del Rey. She and her son Luke are on the run after an attempt on her life — which results in considerable collateral damage — in a small town in Oklahoma, where mother and son had been placed in witness protection.
Gina is running because she can't go to the authorities for help. She's definitely no innocent victim (she packs a Glock), and her situation is anything but typical. Gina entered witness protection after helping put her mobster husband — and the father of her son — in prison. Before joining the WitSec program, she also helped herself to a substantial amount of her husband's ill-gotten gains. Needless to say, her father-in-law is quite anxious to both eliminate Gina and reclaim his grandson, and the U.S. marshal assigned to her case wants the bounty the father-in-law is offering as well as the loot she absconded with.
While this makes for a cozy partnership between the old mob don and the bent U.S. marshal, it leaves Gina and Luke nowhere to turn in this tale of revenge and greed. So mother and son, with the U.S. marshal close behind, drive until they run out of continent.
As for enigmatic heroes tailor-made to save the day, you can't get much better than Gray. Just Gray. Not his real name, of course, and he's not necessarily a sailor. Gray is looking for redemption, but there are miles to go, bodies to bury and memories to come to grips with before that happens.
Noir fiction has always been about the outcast hero looking for salvation while grappling with an indifferent universe that wishes him (and it's usually a "him") and those he cares about harm. In the mid-20th century, when hard-boiled noir was reaching its zenith, the source of that apathetic-to-malevolent oppression was usually another individual or, at most, a group of like-minded souls, such as a police precinct or a union.
If only it were that easy for Gray. But "Sailor" is a 21st century noir novel, and Epperson deftly captures a fun-house reflection of a brave new world where crime and criminals have gone global, entering strategic partnerships to encourage synergies between the skill sets of each unsavory group. It's not just the mob and the unscrupulous U.S. marshal that the hero is working against to save Gina, but a multinational criminal conglomerate called The System. And it's The System that has hedged its investment strategies by exercising leverage against its own associates. In other words, even the bad guys have bad guys dogging their steps.
The story may be dark, but Gray's road to redemption has flashes of black humor throughout, mostly courtesy of one of the most inspired collections of offbeat to plain psycho characters ever written. Good guys, bad guys, none of them one-dimensional: Some are stupid; some are stupid and mean; one assassin has a savior complex; another, a kidnapper, falls for his hostage and is happy she can't see the acne underneath his mask. Although a critical mass of professional assassins and run-of-the-mill killers converging on a mother and son should in no way be funny, you have to chuckle at the dark comedy of their complete and total ineptitude.
Perhaps one of the most interesting characters, though, is the man we learn the least about. The mysterious Mr. Li, who lives on an ocean-worthy yacht named Invictus, is a representative of The System and coordinates its divisions in the field, so to speak. Readers can only hope that Epperson has a sequel on deck and that Mr. Li returns. What thriller fan doesn't love a shadowy character at the heart of an international crime conspiracy?
But by the end of "Sailor," no character has escaped his or her own reckoning. One of the most compelling drivers of this novel is that all the characters, with all their failures and foibles, have to wade through the consequences of their past. For some, the wages of sin are death; for others, it's a deeply different form of life. By the end, the solution to the deeply twisted calculus of the plot is surprising, sad and wholly satisfactory.