whiteAt a dive bar in San Francisco’s edgy Tenderloin district, the dishevelled Emily Rosario is drinking whiskey and looking for an escape. When she is approached by a mysterious and wealthy Russian, she thinks she has found an exit from her drifter lifestyle and drug-addict boyfriend. A week later she finds herself drugged, disoriented and wanted for robbery.

On the other side of town, cop Leo Elias is broke, alcoholic and desperate. When he hears about an unsolved bank robbery, the stolen money proves too strong a temptation. Elias takes the case into his own hands, hoping to find the criminal and the money before anyone else does…

Knowing my penchant for edgy American crime fiction, The White Van from debut novelist Patrick Hoffman, delivered in spades. With what appears to be an incredibly simple premise for a story, the power of Hoffman’s incredibly understated prose, and the natural fluidity and ramping up of the tension, heralds a striking new voice in the genre. I am confident enough to compare Hoffman to another of my favourite authors Denis Johnson, in terms of the pared- down style. Like Johnson, the rendition of violence when it occurs is rapid and brutal, entirely reflective of the burgeoning intensity of the story.

From its ‘what-the-hell-is-going-on’ opening, I was utterly hooked from the outset, and immediately immersed in Emily’s world sharing her confusion and fear at the situation she finds herself in. The build-up to her involvement in a bank robbery is brilliantly formulated, and likewise her attempts to extricate herself from the clutches of the Russian gang that have used her effectively as an unwitting pawn in their crime. She is a curious mix of vulnerability, underscored by a steely determination to both conquer and profit from the situation she finds herself in. Equally, Hoffman’s cast iron characterisation of the burnt out cop, Leo Elias, down on his luck, in debt to his eyeballs with an imploding marriage, gave a real solidity to the storyline overall. As Elias becomes enmeshed in a maelstrom of problems, and his natural greed kicks in, his unrelenting pursuit of Emily and her cohorts adds a further intense momentum to the plot. This is further strengthened by the changing parameters of Elias’ professional relationship with his police partner, Trammell, which can only be destructive as Elias goes into free fall.

Hoffman’s depiction of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco also works terrifically well, as the down at heel, sordid and dangerous backdrop to this violent tale, easily assuming a character of its own.  It’s brilliantly done, and overall a debut that I cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Grove Atlantic for the ARC)

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