By Leah Greenblatt
May 19, 2020 at 03:13 PM EDT
Credit: HarperCollins

A serial killer, a gritty urban setting, a series of prostitutes and “working girls” suddenly turned up dead: The bare outlines of These Women fit the profile of a thousand embossed-font airport thrillers come before.

Except novelist Ivy Pochoda (Visitation Street) has the vaguely radical idea of letting her women — angry, imperfect, the base value of their lives so often discounted or dismissed outright — stand at the center of the narrative. It’s a laudable idea, and clearly overdue, though like the recent docudrama Lost Girls (based on a similar and still-unsolved set of murders outside New York City) the worthiness of its intentions is often undercut by wobbly execution.

In a part of Los Angeles far from the tarnished glitter of Hollywood or the leafier havens of residential wealth, working-class Angelenos do what they need to to get by, moving unassumingly between dusty freeway overpasses and worn-down strip malls. It's also a neighborhood where some 13 girls have been brutally murdered over the past 15 years, and no one, or at least anyone who matters, seems to care.

The lone survivor, a casually confiding first-person presence named Feelia, has only dim recollections of the man who picked her up from the parking lot of a Miracle Mart, slit her throat, and left her by the road to die nearly two decades ago; another, Dorian, still mourns the daughter she lost the same way, but tries to make up for it by feeding the rotating cast of hustlers and sex workers who come to her fish shack for gossip and sustenance, or just to have a moment of peace off the street.

As the novel’s lens expands, more women inevitably come in: a troubled young performance artist; a part-time dancer with dreams of turning her iPhone photos into real art; a diminutive, gum-chewing police detective. Even as the plot's threads begin to converge and come into sharper focus, it can feel like a struggle to connect to many of them on a deeper level; in part because they’re only sketchily drawn, and because the dialogue, too, often fails to ring true to the lives they lead. (Though that hasn't stopped the rights from reportedly being snapped up for a future TV series by the creator of The Handmaid's Tale.)

Far more vivid is the city that Pochoda conjures in artful, unmissable detail on nearly every page: a place as textured and immediate as any breathing, sentient character. It’s that world-building that sets the mood for the book’s climactic payoff — a series of revelations that aptly scratch the itch for a satisfying reveal, even if the inner worlds of the victims themselves remain, in the end, a mystery. B

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