BOULEVARD by Stephen Jay Schwartz
Reviewed by Mike Dennis, 2010
You would think the Los Angeles area has been done to death in crime novels. The terrain has been plowed sooooo many times by sooooo many authors, hasn’t it? And that’s to say nothing of TV and movies. I mean, doesn’t everyone know about Santa Monica and the Hollywood Freeway and all that stuff? Admit it, when you pick up a novel and the author mentions the San Fernando Valley, you get an immediate image in your mind, right? There’s really nothing new left to say, is there? Haven’t you had it with these LA novels? Aren’t you ready to cry “enough”?
Well, not quite yet. Especially not after reading Stephen Jay Schwartz’s Boulevard (2009).
LAPD Detective Hayden Glass is riding along Sunset Boulevard one middle of the night, eyeballing all the hookers, as well as the johns cruising to pick them up. He slides past strip clubs and drug corners, and he really seems to know what all these sex-trade people are thinking, as if he were deep inside their heads. The whole scene drips with sleaze and stunning detail.
Contrary to one of the “rules” of novel-writing, there’s very little real action in this opening, but you can’t turn your head away. It’s like you’re in the back seat of the car, a voyeur, invited along for the ride.
You’re all set for a novel centering around Hollywood Vice, when you quickly learn that Glass has been moved up to RHD, which is LAPD-speak for Robbery-Homicide Division, the top of the cop heap in the City of Angels. Schwartz hustles Glass through a series of murder investigations, with each killing more horrific than the last. Because of clever clue placement, Glass realizes the murders are linked, probably committed by the same person.
The problem, though, is that no one will believe him, because apart from these tenuous clues, nothing, but nothing, connects the victims to each other. They’re of different races, genders, and backgrounds. Glass sets out to find the killer, but he can’t let on that these clues even exist, because to do so will tip his superiors to his career-ending innermost secret: he’s a sex addict.
Once you peel back the overlay of the plot, this novel is really a disturbing travelogue through the Los Angeles sexual demimonde. Glass knows every boulevard in LA County where hookers stand on corners, and just like in the opening scene, he takes us with him in his Jeep, searching them out. He knows precisely how far to go down each boulevard before making a U-turn for another lap. He knows the invisible turf boundary that divides your more upscale girls from the hard ones. This is where the real Hayden Glass resides, the world to which his soul is hopelessly chained. And this is the Los Angeles that the reader has seldom seen before.
You can feel the intensity in Glass’ eyes as he cruises around endlessly, hoping to spot a “glint of blonde hair”, the tipoff of a hooker. When he sees one get out of a car, he makes a beeline toward her. Problem is, so does every other john who’s around that particular area of that particular boulevard at that particular moment. They all know the routine. It’s first come, first served.
When he’s not cruising the streets to satisfy his addiction, Glass takes the reader along to massage parlors and to strip clubs for lap dances, all the while letting us into his twisted brain. We eventually see that his addiction is not really about the beauty of sex and the pleasure of orgasm, it’s about something far deeper and much, much darker.
There’s a 12-step Sexual Addicts Anonymous organization that has regular AA-style meetings all over the city. We go with Glass to a few of these meetings, where we learn the pecking order of sex addicts. Level One consists of people like Glass, those who commit “victimless crimes”, to use his euphemism, like picking up hookers and going to massage parlors. Level Two includes flashers, peeping toms, and the like, while Level Three is composed of rapists and other violent offenders.
Glass is very resentful that people from Levels Two and Three are allowed into his meeting. He clearly thinks they are beneath contempt and feels the world would be better off without them. You can almost hear him thinking that the Level Two and Three types give sexual addiction a bad name.
While all these sordid details of Glass’ inner life are dripped out to the reader like a continuously-flowing IV, the plot pushes on, and Glass eventually comes to the conclusion that, although the rest of the cops still can’t see the connection between these murders, the killer is doing all this specifically for Glass himself.
This is a very unusual plot twist, and one which requires Glass to deduce, and the reader to accept, that only he could’ve possibly seen the very devious clues planted by the killer, and that he would have connected them properly. It’s a big leap for Glass to make, and he takes a lot of action based on this slender thread of deduction. It’s a bigger leap for readers, though, some of whom may not make it to the other side.
But that doesn’t derail the novel the way it might have. Schwartz keeps you turning the page by making you lose yourself in Glass’ private sexual world and the musings of his dark mind. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that’s really the purpose of this novel. In any case, by the time the climax rolls around, you won’t really care how you got there.
The author never lets the story escape his control, despite numerous points of opportunity to do just that. It’s well-planned and densely cast, and the reader is in for a long ride down gritty streets he’ll not soon forget.
A frightening tale of one man’s struggle with his own internal demons, Boulevard is Schwartz’s debut novel, and I hope he’s got a lot more like this one in him.