Perhaps surprisingly, there are relatively few novels about street gangs. There are gangster novels, certainly, but they tend to focus on the upper end: organised crime families and mafia organisations. The most famous such novel of course is Mario Puzo’s Godfather, which spawned the classic movies. While The Godfather traces the Corleone’s rise from bottom to top, the family is still born into the mafia tradition, and there is a sense of if not inevitability, at least entitlement. There is a sub-genre of course that focuses solely at the bottom of the criminal tree, novels such as Irvine Welsh’s trainspotting that focus on addicts, petty criminals and chancers. But despite the street gangs that blight many an inner city, comparatively few novels focus on this mid-level rung of the ladder, where gangs of young men and women struggle over street corners and lives are often cut short by homicide or long periods of incarceration.
Lola fits very much in this neglected territory. Lola Vasquez, the novel’s titular character, is the girlfriend of Garcia, the nominal head of the Crenshaw Six, a small street gang in Huntington Park, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles. We learn very early on however that Lola is far from just the little woman, rather she secretly leads the gang, having executed its previous leader, Carlos, after discovering that he was ripping them all off. Now she covertly leads, allowing Garcia to be the face of the gang as many might not accept a woman as leader.
The Crenshaw Six is tiny in the scheme of things, but when Los Liones, the powerful Mexican drug cartel that owns the monopoly for trafficking drugs into the city, asks the gang to sabotage a drop between one of their former clients and a new supplier trying to muscle into the trade, Lola and Garcia smell an opportunity to win favour and expand. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out to plan and the Crenshaw Six soon find themselves in debt to the cartel for two million in cash and two million worth of heroin. They must find and return both for the cartel or Lola, who the cartel still labours under the impression is merely a girlfriend, will be tortured and killed.
So begins Lola’s quest to find the loot for the cartel and thus save her life, navigate her gang through the treacherous waters of the city’s criminal landscape, all the while maintaining the fiction that Garcia is really the one in charge. Along the way she meets a corrupt cop, an enigmatic District Attorney who might be friend or foe, various gangbangers and other denizens of the underworld. A subplot is provided by Lola’s determined efforts to rescue the abused daughter of a heroin addict.
Lola is an interesting and compelling read for a number of reasons, not least its protagonist. This is a novel that was first published in 2017, just as the Me Too movement was building steam, and what is Lola if not a gangster for the Me Too and Time’s Up generation? And herein lies the twist in the narrative, the thing that makes Lola different to many a crime novel, for the protagonist is grappling with the age old issue that women across class, ethnicity, and history have had to: sexism and misogyny. There have been female gangsters in real life - for example, in Italy there were cases of women stepping into the role of godmother after male bosses were killed or locked up - and one wonders if they had similar experiences to Lola in this novel. Of course, a criminal is never a poster case for any social movement, but equally criminals are not divorced from the societies they live in - or prey on -and will be equally affected by them.
This is an interesting take on the crime novel but is also an entertaining read on its own merits. Despite the fact her gang is dealing heroin, one can’t help but cheer Lola on and the author imbues the character with enough morality (difficult in a heroin dealer) and charisma to make her compelling. The plot too, encompassing as it does this plucky little gang and its leader trying to outwit a Mexican drug cartel and various double crosses, is engaging and page-turning. All in all, this is a great read.
5 out of 5 stars