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Ryan Gattis’ new novel, Safe, pits two narrators against each other — both of them bad guys trying to be good. Ricky Mendoza Jr., a.k.a. Ghost, a former addict who cracks safes for the DEA, has decided to go rogue in a “ghetto Robin Hood” plot to steal from gangsters to pay off mortgages of those in need. (It’s 2008, and the financial crisis looms.) This puts him at odds with Rudolfo “Rudy” Reyes, a.k.a. Glasses, a powerful gangster’s right-hand man who hopes to inform on his boss and start life fresh.

At times, Gattis overexplains these men’s motivations. He needn’t–the pathos of their problems is inherently compelling. This macho, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet novel benefits from the extensive research Gattis has done on the L.A. gang scene — his previous novel, All Involved, was about the 1992 riots — and that deep knowledge informs electrifying plot twists. To navigate them, Ghost knows, he’s “got to put a saddle on all the stuff that makes me be me and ride it. Strategy. Lying. Cleverness. All the gifts I ever had that made me a damn good junkie have got to be used for good now.”

This appears in the July 31, 2017 issue of TIME.

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