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Murder; money; casual sex; betrayal; a close, confining atmosphere—all are classic ingredients of the noir novel. So are lines like “He held out his hand and as I shook it I felt like I was being pulled into a long dark tunnel from which there was no exit except some dreadful future where everything was dangerous and irrevocably changed from the way it was now.” These words appear more than halfway through Matthew Stokoe’s Empty Mile, but things become quite dangerous long before. Indeed, danger permeates this expertly plotted story from start to finish—by which time there have been numerous murders, suicides, double-crosses, and random acts of cruelty. With a 21st-century-California setting but dialogue that could have been spoken by Bogart (as well as the occasional purple simile à la Raymond Chandler), Empty Mile doesn’t go easy on its characters. Each has flaws. Johnny, the narrator, identifies his as selfishness. His friend Gareth is a psychopath. Johnny’s father exudes emotional aridity: “[H]e felt the choosing of a gift that would delight its recipient, that required thinking about and searching for, was an action that would betray too much emotional involvement on his part. And so he chose instead to give gifts that were empty of meaning and maintained the barriers to engagement.” Flawed and compromised—Johnny’s brother’s very mind, his girlfriend Marla’s sexuality, the local big shot’s private life. Add to those inadequate paternal love, fraternal carelessness, and the capricious abandonment of a lover and catastrophes are inevitable. They’re bundled together in one of the most complicated plots since The Big Sleep, demonstrating repeatedly how selfish, thoughtless actions cause disaster. Very early on, such actions make Johnny the target of a diabolical revenge campaign, sickening in its meticulous thoroughness. The reader becomes aware of what it must be long before Johnny does, which generates much suspense. On another matter, Johnny tells us: “Yet as I stared at the photo in the spill of light from the porch behind me I couldn’t help feeling the small cold feet of suspicion patter along some dark and deep-buried corridor within me,” And the worse the suspicion in this book, the more likely that it’s true—and will lead to mayhem. But despite Johnny’s crimes, he narrates in the beguiling voice of an ordinary, innocent, good person—your average 30-year-old—and this disconnect between how he sounds and what he does is jarring. It’s through this gap that Empty Mile reaffirms basic knowledge of good and evil and how action alters destiny. Johnny is typical only to a certain point. Once enmeshed in the plot’s relentless coils, he enters another dimension—one in which good people don’t stay good for very long.