When I began The Last Girl by Danny Lopez, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it: the opening chapter was cantankerous and blunt, feeling like a parody of noir narration rather than actually being noir in tone. But the character of Dexter Vega soon grew on me and his voice became comprehensible, even sympathetic, as we became more familiar with the world he inhabits and the unfortunate situation he stumbles upon. Vega is a Sarasota, Florida-based journalist who just lost his job at the local paper and feels unmoored as he tries to figure out what to do next with his life. He sees his firing not only as a personal injury but also the death of print as proof of a greater injustice in the modern world. He also suffers from living in a beautiful coastal town that has lost its cracker authenticity to the wealthy and corrupt – a paradise lost to snowbirds and MacMansions.
Vega soon enough meets a random wealthy stranger at a bar and is asked to find this man’s daughter, who had been attending college but recently went missing. From there, things go off the rails, as they tend to do with mysteries in general and noir in particular. Vega finds himself in a highly compromised position, and there is a murder with a highly unlikely choice of weapon – so unlikely it made me laugh in a good way, as if we were being dared to accept how outrageous this world is.
The twists and turns come at a rapid pace but never feel forced, and there are major surprises all the way to the very end. Midway through, the locale shifts to Mexico City and a quixotic quest that mirrors the futility of Vega’s own personal mission. There is a richness to the description of Mexico and the ex-pat community there that contrasts positively to the descriptions of Sarasota, which is just as rich and even more well-detailed, but often felt like axe-grinding the author was working through.
Dexter Vega remains cantankerous throughout, but also takes on a wonderful complexity that makes him more likable and even heroic at times. The supporting characters help a great deal, several of them working as sounding boards to express the reader’s own frustrations – and, quite nicely, forcing Vega to take stock of himself time and again as he tries to make sense of the less-than-same world in which he finds himself. Vega’s narration works for the most part, but he does go through a very wide variety of musical and drink choices, which again felt more like the author showing off his own tastes than a natural extension of Vega. Further, Vega’s personal history feels a bit scattered as it’s unveiled: his dilemma as a father works nicely, but the story of his own father feels too forced, as if reaching for extra righteousness points.
Nevertheless, Vega comes across convincingly as a moral force in an uncertain world, seeking both justice for others and absolution for himself. He is open about his mistakes even as he continues to make new ones, and is dogged enough to unearth one shocking discovery after another. A more seasoned reader may have seen each major revelation coming from a mile away, and I admit to having my own suspicions as red flags popped up now and again, but I was kept in the novel’s grip as it all unfolded.
By the close of the novel and the hidden truth it delivers, this felt like a successful modern noir: unflinchingly brutal while true to human nature, the answers driven by the randomness of life but falling into place effortlessly. There is even a glimmer of hope in the midst of the ruins, a bit of optimism which feels well-earned and satisfying in its own right.
I enjoyed The Last Girl a great deal and hope Danny Lopez writes more Dexter Vega novels in the future. That may mean that Vega’s world may fall apart some more, but that’s the risk you take when you’re a memorable hard-boiled hero.