Wendy Heard’s The Kill Club Is A Multi-Layered Survival Story

Wendy Heard’s “The Kill Club” Is A Multi-Layered Survival Story

Wendy Heard’s The Kill Club is a multilayered crime novel that peels away like an onion to reveal a story of survival, a heartfelt narrative about the power of motherly love, and a love letter to Los Angeles in all its messy, diverse glory.

Packed with violence and desperation, The Kill Club is one of those rare novels that pushes readers to question their moral compass while showing them that crime fiction bad guys are a cliché and that changing things around and adding complexity to crime stories can make them become memorable.

Jazz and her younger brother Joaquin are trapped in a nightmare. Their foster mother, Carol, is a religious zealot who only seems to get worse with time. While Jazz could protect Joaquin while they all lived under the same roof, things take a bad turn once she leaves and Carol decides that Joaquin doesn’t need his insulin and that prayer can take care of his diabetes. Jazz talks to child services time and time again, but the system is broke and they offer no help.

Things change when Jazz gets a call from a blocked number and the caller, using a distorted voice, offers her a solution. Just like Jazz, there are plenty of people in LA who are desperate and have nowhere else to turn. They are people abandoned by office and institutions; people for whom the usual channels have yielded no results.

The person who calls Jazz helps these folks by organizing them so they can help each other out. If Jazz wants to save Joaquin, all she has to do is kill someone; get rid of someone else’s problem. The killings that come from this, dubbed the Blackbird Killings, are all over the news.

…a multilayered crime novel that peels away like an onion to reveal a story of survival, a heartfelt narrative about the power of motherly love, and a love letter to Los Angeles in all its messy, diverse glory.

If Jazz agrees to participate and takes care of business, someone else will take care of Carol, which will end Joaquin’s conundrum. However, things are never as easy as they look and Jazz quickly finds herself deeply immersed in a dark world of murder and secret agendas.

The Kill Club mixes emotions and violence wonderfully. It’s also packed with tension and constructed carefully so that every step of Jazz’s journey gets its time in the spotlight. Also, Jazz is one of the most memorable character I’ve read in a while. She is strong and insecure, honest but full of secrets, ready to destroy that which affects her and fully aware of the consequences of her actions: “The urge to do violence swells huge inside me, but I have to stay calm.”

In other words, Jazz is wonderfully complex, and having her at the center of the narrative amplifies everything that happens and makes us care more because it’s easy to feel empathy for her from the start because her pain is something we can relate to (“I can’t lose Joaquin. He’s my only family, the one thing tethering me to this earth.”) and the way the system has failed her is something that most of us have or are currently experiencing.

While Jazz is at the center of the story and she is a perfect example of how good a storyteller Heard is, Los Angeles is also an important character in the novel.

Jazz is truly something special in contemporary crime fiction. Her complexity is a vehicle Heard uses to explore everything from motherhood and poverty to homosexuality and self-esteem:

“I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror that hangs on the bathroom door and straighten up to get a better look. My eyeliner is smeared, casting my eyes into shadow under my shaggy bangs. I hate the way I look in mirrors. I feel bigger from the inside, tougher, stronger. Sometimes I’m caught by my own reflection and shamed by my own smallness, by how vulnerable and female I must look to the world around me.”

While Jazz is at the center of the story and she is a perfect example of how good a storyteller Heard is, Los Angeles is also an important character in the novel. In a way, this chaotic narrative couldn’t take place anywhere else and Heard nails the flavor of the city. In a literary landscape stained by novels that take place in a clean, whitewashed LA, The Kill Club is a superb reminder that one of the cradles of crime fiction is a city where cultures mix, nationalities share every corner, and people have all kinds of histories and backgrounds:

“Outside my windows, East LA’s collection of small businesses flashes past, disconcertingly cheerful; a taco shop, a panaderia; a Laundromat; a frutero under a colorful umbrella; a woman inexplicably selling stuffed animals out of the back of a station wagon. For the first time in my life, I feel disconnected from all of it.”

The Kill Club is the kind of novel that will place Heard on the radar of any crime fiction lover who hasn’t read her work yet. It’s a heartfelt, fun narrative that moves forward at breakneck speed and leaves you wanting more. Go read it.

*****

To read other essays by Gabino Iglesias on Mystery Tribune, please visit here.

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