If you come to The Heartless (Oceanview) expecting a solid, fast-moving police thriller, you’ll be satisfied. But you’ll also discover much more.
David Putnam’s seventh novel about the world of Los Angeles County officer Bruno Johnson involves a hunt for escaped convicts through the meanest streets of Los Angeles. The premise certainly isn’t unfamiliar. Bruno and the bad guy, a sociopathic escaped killer with a foot fetish named Louis Barkow, will have their climactic reckoning. And, since this is a series, you’ll guess that Bruno will remain standing in some fashion at the end. These are roads many authors travel, most notably masters such as Michael Connelly. It’s a tough crowd in which to compete, and Putnam holds his own.
But here’s what peels The Heartless from the pack: The conflict between Bruno and Barkow is scaffolding around a rich, surprising and more intimate story that will touch you deeply. The real battle rages inside Bruno’s head. It’s an all-too-human mess of guilt, survival instincts, rage and regrets tied to a rapidly deteriorating relationship with his teenage daughter, Olivia, that would break any parent’s heart.
Bruno’s concerns explode as he realizes his 15-year-old daughter may not survive the mistakes that they’ve both made. As the story opens. Bruno has stepped down from his role on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Violent Crimes Team. He’s working as a court bailiff to spend more single-parent time with Olivia, gaining weight and missing the action on the streets in the process.
Barkow is on trial in Bruno’s courtroom when he gets a frantic call from Olivia, who says she and her boyfriend, 17-year-old Derek Sams, are being held at gunpoint. It turns out to be part of Barkow’s elaborate plot to use Olivia as a pawn in a clever jailbreak scheme involving three other hardened criminals and outside enablers. This makes things personal, and Bruno soon returns to the streets in pursuit of the escaped criminals.
Bruno also uses his new freedom and mobility to keep an eye on Derek Sams. To use Bruno’s words, Sams is “every parent’s nightmare,” a wanna-be punk and street thug who’s probably doing drugs and having unprotected sex with his daughter.
As any parent of a teenager would understand, the harder he tries to pry Olivia away from her teenage crush, the more she wants to be with Sams. Bruno’s concerns fester and his temper flares, driving him into acts to push Sams out of the picture that he can’t explain to Olivia. To Putnam’s credit, Sams is no ghetto stereotype either; something that Bruno learns, and it only makes him feel guiltier as his anger rages. Love for his daughter is his self-justification, but in his heart, he knows he’s making things worse. Bruno’s choices will provide more openings for Barkow to exploit.
The author knows these worlds. He comes from a law-enforcement family and worked in everything from narcotics to violent crime teams and pursuit of murder suspects across the western United States. He makes the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles seem real. In the book’s afterword, he notes that Barkow’s clever escape plan, which involves a remarkable way to remove windows in an interview room, has real-life roots. The hunt for Barkow takes several interesting twists, and the dialogue is crisp and natural, including street lingo that would seem forced and phony in the hands of less-skilled authors.
But what’s most memorable is Putnam’s grasp of the conflicting motivations that drive Bruno and his police partners. The prices paid are high for some of those who serve and protect us.
You could say that Putnam has written a memorable psychological novel masquerading as a police thriller. Bruno and Olivia will stick with you, and that’s what makes The Heartless special.
The Heartless is now available. For more on David, please check out his BookTrib author profile and our in-depth Author Spotlight interview.