It's generally taken for granted that crime organizations are operated by men. In her debut novel, Lola (Crown, $26), Melissa Scrivner Love uses that expectation as a narrative device, to wonderfully subversive effect. Protagonist Lola is the secret leader of a South Central L.A. gang called the Crenshaw Six. To outsiders and even her friends and neighbors, she appears to be just the meek 98-pound girlfriend of the gang leader, Garcia, serving up tacos and empanadas to the male gangbangers as they plot their latest drug deal, heist or murder.
But her soldiers — Garcia, Hector, Marcos and Jorge — know the truth: Lola calls the shots. Lola does the thinking. Lola gives the orders. And if you defy her, or if you fuck up an assignment, you can expect to join all the other bodies dumped in the Angeles National Forest.
She even slices off Hector's trigger finger because he fucked up an operation where they were supposed to intercept a rival's drug deal and capture both sides of the drop: $2 million in cash and $2 mil worth of heroin, known on the street as "product." The only reason she didn't outright kill Hector: He happens to be her little brother.
Lola became the head of the brutal, bloodthirsty, up-and-coming gang three years prior, when she shot her boyfriend Carlos, the previous leader of the Crenshaw Six, right between the eyes and watched him bleed out on their living room floor. That one act of cold-blooded murder — never solved by the police — immediately gained her the respect and unquestioned devotion of the four remaining Crenshaw Six members.
In an act of literary magic, Love somehow manages to make Lola a sympathetic protagonist as she tells the story from Lola's point of view. It isn't just Lola's survival instincts, which enabled her to overcome being pimped out by her junkie mother to whatever pedophile had a little "product" that night. And it's not just her decision to take in poor little Lucy, a young girl also being pimped out by a junkie mother.
Lola is sympathetic because of the idea Love subtly conveys that she's succeeding in the only way open to her in a macho culture dominated by men who aren't as smart, determined or resourceful as she is.
Her own inner morality also makes her sympathetic: Although the narrative is built around the deceit and danger of street-level heroin trafficking, Lola herself doesn't use anything stronger than caffeine, and views those hooked on drugs, alcohol or even nicotine as worthy of exploitation.
The narrative, which really roars to life with the unsuccessful Venice drug-drop intercept, features a corrupt detective, a fierce female prosecutor involved with drug dealers herself, and a Mexican cartel that takes notice of Lola and her little gang when it starts to become a little too successful. It's a neo-noir story that could have been a 1940s film about bootleggers, updated to the present in drug-riddled L.A., with double and triple crosses, hostages, revenge killings, family dysfunction and even a big reveal at the very end.
But instead of the melodramatic mess it might have become, the book is a gritty, tightly plotted dramatic masterpiece that doubles as a whirlwind tour of some of the many different sections and tribes of L.A.: beauty and brutality living side by side, with no barrier between them other than a class barrier. The story moves seamlessly from the projects of Huntington Park, where Lola secretly rules her little fiefdom with Garcia as her front man, to the upscale streets of gentrified Venice, where the botched drug deal goes down, to the ritzy Malibu rehab center that serves as a major plot point.
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To anyone who has lived in L.A. for a while, the story has the kind of serious verisimilitude readers crave. It all reads and sounds so authentic that you have to wonder how a white woman from Kentucky who now lives in Sherman Oaks was able to conjure up such a gritty story with such compelling locales.
"When I first got to L.A. 13 years ago, I started delivering food for Project Angel Food all over the city," Love says. "That's when I fell in love with the city and all its discrepancies and dichotomies. I immediately thought this is where I belong."
Love, 36, writes for the Fox TV series Rosewood, which helps explain why the writing in Lola is so cinematic. "It started out as a TV pilot," Love admits. "I eventually did a complete rewrite and turned it into my first novel."
And for the many first-time fans Lola is sure to generate, there's some good news. "I just finished a sequel, and I'm sending it off to my agent next week," she says. "I would love for it to be a TV show shot in L.A."