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Safe by Ryan Gattis

Published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on August 1, 2017

Like many good crime novels, Safe is about moral dilemmas. The story features two sympathetic characters, both skating between the right and the wrong side of the law, who steadily move toward a confrontation with each other while trying to do decide whether and how to do something decent with their lives, although for much different reasons.

A locksmith whose nickname is Ghost helps the DEA break into LA drug houses and opens any safes they find on the premises. Ghost has a need for money, although not for his own benefit, and decides that helping himself to cash in a safe will solve the problem. Of course, he trades one problem for another.

As a former addict and gang banger, Ghost has ample reason to regret much of his life. Thanks to the death of a woman named Rose, a woman who helped him find a reason to live before she died, Ghost has been living in pain for a long time. But a bad past has given him a good heart, and Ghost wants to make amends before he dies. Stealing from drug dealers (or, as the DEA might see it, stealing from the DEA) gives him the opportunity to do that. Ghost isn’t exactly Robin Hood but in his state of redemption, he’s a good, likable guy who is taking risks because he doesn’t have much to lose. He's kind of a Robin Hood from the the Hood.

The other key character, whose nickname is Glasses, works for a major drug dealer. His tendency toward decency is not so much a moral choice as an aversion to the violent methods his drug boss employs. But the novel’s strongest point is that there are different ways of being honorable, different paths to being good or bad, and life just isn’t as black and white for most people as the narrowest minds want it to be.

Ghost and Glasses both care about the people in their lives, which sets them apart from the novel’s more sociopathic characters. But none of the characters are truly evil — even the ones who do evil deeds live by a code that hints at moral principles — and that compassionate understanding of people whose lives have been shaped by unfortunate influences is one of the things I like about Safe.

Quite a bit of Safe (particularly when narrated by Glasses) is written in street prose, eloquent and creative in its own way. The plot is engaging but the depth of the characters sets Safe apart from most crime novels. Some aspects of the novel (including the disease that motivates Ghost to make the choices that drive the story) might be a little too convenient, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the novel’s poignant moments. And the ending is such a gut punch that I would recommend the novel for the last few pages alone.


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