A smart, sexy detective; a case involving a mysterious, wealthy American and the Russian Mafia; danger, romance and pathos: it’s local, and our hero is a heroine.
In a fast-paced detective novel, Human Cargo (2011) by Des Zamorano, gives us flashes of Dashiell Hammett with a style all her own. Instead of Sam Spade we have Inez Leon, a 21st century Pasadena Latina with a handsome Caltech professor boyfriend and a handgun license to match her private detective one. It’s Inez who delivers the snappy dialogue, tucks the pistol into her waistband, and puts her life in danger to save the innocents and catch the crooks.
A Russian girl named Anya is smuggled into the States by a man and woman pretending to be her parents. Through a human rights activist, Anya’s grandmother hires Inez to find Anya. But soon the grandmother disappears and Inez is on her own against the Russian Mafia. Inez uncovers trafficking not just of girls, but of men and women, too—a cruel, efficient business conducted in some Glendale warehouses along the cement ravine of the Los Angeles River.
According to easily-Googled information, organized crime (Russian, Chechen and Armenian) exists in southern California. Zamorano takes this information and extrapolates, creating a drama about human trafficking and Inez’s fever-pitched search for nine-year-old Anya.
Reversing the literary trope of the male detective with an eye for ladies, Zamorano gives her detective an eye for men. Inez is somewhat of a loner, and although she never misses a handsome face, she just might be in love with Wallace, her Caltech standby. Yet, Inez gets sexual comfort from Wallace, and apparently it’s very good. But instead of rubbing our noses in it, Zamorano tells us only that it puts “a little spring in [Inez's] step.” When it comes to sex slavery, once again Zamorano deals lightly. The subject is there, but just as Inez is horrified by the idea, we aren’t forced to view it.
Zamorano is deft with smart dialogue and pacing (at one point in my notes I wrote, “This baby’s zipping along!”). Don’t read it while you’re sleepy or you’ll have to go back a few pages to pick up a lost nuance (“Wait a minute. How did she…? Oh!”)
Told in the first person, Human Cargo leads us through Inez’s harrowing adventure via her inner monologue and, like determination drives Inez, this monologue drives the book. Inez fears she might become her work—cruel, like her enemies. In some ways she does: she thoroughly enjoys smacking one slave owner and she gets a thrill out of using her krav manga on a dirty cop. But we’re glad when she prevails. These are bad people and, through her, weaker souls get vicarious revenge.
It’s unusual to see such a story through a woman’s eyes, not to mention a modern American Latina, and a strong woman at that. But at times Inez admits feels powerless, and even as she struggles with the inhumanity of the criminals with which she deals, she struggles with her own as well. It would be so much easier not to care.
Human Cargo is currently available as an ebook on Kindle, iPad, Nook, and all other devices.
Dèsirèe Zamorano is a playwright, Pushcart Prize nominee, and novelist with a deep understanding of and affection for Pasadena and Los Angeles. She is also a fan of krav maga and vodka, but not at the same time. (From her website, desireeszamorano.com.)
Hometown Author Petrea Burchard‘s new novel, Camelot & Vine, comes out this winter. Her blog, Pasadena Daily Photo, is featured on Hometown Pasadena’s “Best Blogs in San Gabriel Valley.” Petrea’s 30-year acting career began morphing into a writing career with “Act As If,” her humor column about the journeyman actor’s life, now in reruns at NowCasting.com. She gained a following in the animè world as the original English voice of Ryoko, a space pirate in the cult classic Tenchi Muyo!, and continues voice-over work as the voice of Stater Bros. markets.