Two fine images bracket this novel about a search by Southern California private-eye Jim Sader for a missing, and possibly abused, young boy. First, in an early scene, Sader visits a Santa Monica neighborhood and meets a dead end that’s literal as well as figurative. Gutted houses—signs of a community in the throes of violent upheaval—await demolition, and nearby lies the powerful interloper for which they must make room: “Three blocks east,” Hitchens writes, “the end of the freeway from L.A. was a muddy mountainous nose thrust sniffing seaward.” Second, at a climactic moment, Sader ventures to the Laguna Hills redoubt of a sculptor and there finds a row of immense concrete heads that resemble the famous stone monuments of Easter Island. One of the statues lies broken and on its side, suggesting a fallen idol, but the whole place exudes a sense of abandonment, as if to mark the silence of gods who cannot or will not protect an innocent child from harm.
At its core, the tale is one of “illegitimate” maternity, and it explores the shame, regret, scorn, and confusion that can surround both a mother and her offspring when figures of authority refuse to honor her motherhood—or, indeed, to recognize it. For Sader, the story begins when a client hires him to locate a five-year-old kid whose name, he eventually discovers, is Ricky Champlain. The client, a wily old patriarch named Gibbings, is cagy about the reason for his interest in the boy, and alongside that quandary are several other puzzling questions: Who wrote the anonymous note to Gibbings that recounts the starvation and the beatings that Ricky has purportedly endured? What role did Ricky’s adoptive mother and her family play in causing his current plight? And how, if at all, does his birth mother figure into the case? There’s also a killing along the way, and Sader will need to puzzle out who committed it. Yet what drives him forward, from his errand into that derelict subdivision to his sighting of that macabre hilltop pantheon, is his quest for Ricky.
According to Bill Pronzini, this second of a pair of books that Hitchens wrote about Sader is “the best hard-boiled private-eye novel written by a woman—and one of the best written by anybody.” (And Pronzini should know. He’s married to Marcia Muller, a woman who has written a great many PI novels.) Certainly, it’s a crisply executed piece of work, reminiscent of the psychologically rich sagas of corrupted family life that Ross Macdonald wrote during the same era, when the uptight 1950s were giving way to the let-it-loose 1960s. To readers accustomed to the densely spooled plotting of Macdonald’s classic titles, Slander might appear to have a bit of slack in it. There’s a big surprise at the end, for instance, but it comes only after Hitchens has teasingly held out the promise of a bigger narrative twist, and so it comes as something of a let-down. Where Hitchens truly excels, though, is in her mastery of storytelling basics. She creates real-seeming characters, places them in expertly detailed settings and situations, and smoothly adds symbolic overtones to a style defined primarily by its sober realism. At a scene-by-scene level, moreover, she betrays no slackness at all; on the contrary, she displays (particularly in the book’s early scenes) a knack for pulling the thread of suspense tauter and tauter. Pronzini overstates his case for this unjustly neglected marvel of the private-eye form, but not by much.