Readers who inhaled Jordan Harper’s 2017 debut novel, She Rides Shotgun (aka A Lesson in Violence in the UK) can no doubt recall the emotional catharsis wrought as eleven-year-old Polly McClusky and her teddy bear fought for their lives against some of society’s worst. Now, five years later, Harper returns to the landscape of that noir classic with another gut-wrenching story of family, fate, and failure – The Last King of California.
Luke Crosswhite was whisked away from his biological family at a young age after witnessing a traumatic murder he will likely never forget. After trying to make a normal go of it on his own, The Last King of California begins with nineteen-year-old Luke returning to his father’s land, to his father’s people, to his people. And his timing couldn’t be better – or worse – as The Combine, the gang his father still runs from his prison cell is about to launch a major defense against Beast Daniels and his nefarious crew.
Desperate to prove his worth to his kingpin father, Luke approaches his Uncle Del – who manages affairs on the outside – to claim his birthright. Things don’t necessarily go to plan, but Luke does connect with some members of the “family.” His “play-cousin” from youth, Callie, and her boyfriend, Pretty Boy; convict Curtis, who bonded with Luke’s father while in prison; and Sam, the youngest aspiring-member of The Combine, in whom Luke sees shadows of his childhood self.
Any further detail about The Last King of California would spoil what is another gripping and emotional journey for The Combine characters and for Jordan Harper’s readers. Polly McClusky does not actually appear in the novel, but a moment where the incident she was involved in is mentioned with reverence will resonate powerfully for fans of that earlier novel. Readers should be warned that compared to Jordan Harper’s narrative here, some of the darkest noir would look like a gentle stroll down Cabot Cove beach.
Authors paint pictures with words, and like the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, some of their books are instant masterpieces sure to inspire readers and elicit envy from fellow wordsmiths. The Last King of California is simply that good. Jordan Harper wields words like weapons, with each specific word choice carefully chosen to elicit the desired reaction from the reader. It is like poetry on the page – devastating verse leaving the reader helpless to resist.
By the time readers reach the fire-filled denouement, they will have burned through the three hundred pages of The Last King of California with record speed, barely stopping for a breath. If you pass a stranger and they are chanting “Blood is Love” on the street, just continue on your way – they are clearly consumed by this novel and you’ll be safer by not engaging. Seriously though, The Last King of California is the type of book crime fiction writers aspire to create and crime fiction fans hope to discover. The fact that this book isn’t officially released in the United States is a true shame, but with the global economy such that it is, obtaining it isn’t that hard for those who desire.
Word on the street is that Jordan Harper’s next novel, Everybody Knows, is another worthy addition to the crime fiction canon. That novel will be released in early January 2023, so the wait is relatively short. Until then, do yourself a favor and read She Rides Shotgun (if you haven’t already) and seek out The Last King of California. You won’t regret it. Well, you won’t regret it, much.