Anyone who has lived in Southern California for more than six months will already have heard—or will soon hear—a dad joke about its seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and that other one. Sometimes it’s drought, sometimes mudslide, but it’s never something cheery like spring. In some ways, this is the ironic underbelly of the Hollywood-starlet face that Los Angeles presents to the world. While the myth of Los Angeles stretches from the surfer-magnet shores of Malibu to the Hollywood sign and the last tie-dyed hippie enclave of Laurel Canyon, it is also a city that bears a scar: Western Avenue, which runs LA’s length until it crashes into Los Feliz Boulevard. This is where Ivy Pochoda, author of 2017’s mesmerizing Wonder Valley, set her latest stem-winder of a thriller, These Women.
If you drive along that avenue in West Adams, you might not suspect that, nestled among the likes of Antique Stove Heaven and the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, there’s a whole other economy devoted to every manner of vice that can be exploited for a buck, from chop shops to no-tell motels and bars that double as drug emporiums. It is in this milieu that “these women”—a restaurateur, a vice cop, a young “dancer,” an aspiring performance artist and her mother—all ply their trades. Suddenly, a string of murders intertwines these women’s lives in unexpected ways. Is it possible that this latest spree is related to a similar one that stopped mysteriously a decade and a half earlier?
Pochoda buttresses her narrative with a distinct and empowered group of women, and it is refreshing to see women in a thriller all acting with agency. Even the dancer is cognizant of her choices and acts only through the compulsion of her history, not controlled by some man. Not since Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source (or perhaps Pochoda’s own Wonder Valley) has a mystery author so successfully and unflinchingly delved beneath the surface of a Southern California subculture to render a portrait that readers will find arresting—no matter the season.