Book Review: The Janes by Louisa Luna

The Janes by Louisa Luna is the second novel in the Alice Vega series, where the disappearance of two girls leads to private investigators Alice Vega and Max Caplan delving into the dark world of sex trafficking.

Louisa Luna turns newspaper headlines into heart-stopping thrillers. Two Girls Down introduced Alice Vega, “a private investigator known for finding the missing,” and Max “Cap” Caplan. Two girls went missing in Cap’s small Pennsylvania town and Alice (who lives in San Diego) was hired to find them. Private detective Cap knew the local scene, so they worked hand-in-glove to find the two Brandt sisters—alive.  

The bodies of two Latina girls are discovered on the outskirts of San Diego. They are dubbed “The Janes” as in Jane Doe because they cannot be IDed, and no one seems to be looking for them. The police fear the girls might be victims of a sex trafficking ring and ask Vega to take the case. First stop, the County Medical Examiner office. Luna doesn’t spare us: the girls have been cruelly used. Medical examiner Mia provides a running commentary.

“Female, age twelve to fourteen, came in last Thursday. Cause of death was myocardial infarction due to bleed-out due to multiple stab wounds,” said Mia, lifting the hip with two fingers to show Vega where the cuts continued. “I estimate she was dead about a day before getting to us. No sign of recent sexual assault, per se, but some labial and anal fissures, as well as absence of hymen tissue. And, notably, a functional IUD in her uterus.”

The smell coming from the bag containing Jane Doe 2 gets to Vega: “she bent over, hands on her knees, breathed through her mouth.” Mia gives her an Altoid: after “the mint spiked through the roof of her mouth,” she’s able to breathe once more. She asks Mia why she thinks the girls are “definitively linked.”

“The new girl had an IUD, too,” she said, pleased.

 

Mia paused then, and Vega sensed more was coming.

 

“I bagged them,” she continued, and she pulled two plastic evidence bags from the shelf below the gurney, held one up in each hand. “Copper. From the same company.”

 

“How do you know?” said Vega.

 

“Name’s printed on the coil. Health-Guard.”

But not just the manufacturer’s name is on the IUD: Mia uses a microscope to show Vega an eight-digit number of which only the last three are important: 79433530.

Vega listened to her as she walked slowly back to the new girl. Jane 2. IUD 79433525.

 

“That’s smart,” said Vega, studying the body.

Mia’s attention to detail opens a crack in the case. Could there be four more girls out there just like the Janes? Vega needs help: she reaches out to Cap.

Hi. Got a job here in San Diego for you. 10K to start. Let me know if you can make it.

Just in the nick of time because Cap has been offered a full-time job with benefits. It’s a solid offer “with a good shop and a first-rate boss and a health insurance plan that will make you salivate over its reasonable deductible like it was a medium-rare cheeseburger.” But Cap doesn’t want to wear a tie to work every day. He’s never been able to stop thinking about Alice Vega, “the elusive, the conundrum, the deviously lovely,” and his decision is a foregone conclusion.

The third member of Vega’s team is the Bastard, her computer guru. The Bastard knows how to uncover information criminals hope never sees the light of day. Vega types another email.

“Hey. Need info on a pharmaceutical accessory company called Health-Guard. Any way to get into their shipping/purchase logs? Let me know.”

Detective work is like dominoes: one bit of information leads to another and another. After Cap arrives in San Diego, he meets Vega at the Bay Free Health Clinic. They tell the nurse, Elizabeth Palomino, they have “questions about the staff.” Can they access her personnel files?

Now Palomino stiffened up in her chair and said, “I don’t think so.”

 

She breathed heavily in the silence that followed. Vega met Cap’s eye and gave a near-invisible nod toward the door.

 

“Excuse me for a minute,” he said to Palomino, and then he left, shutting the door very quietly.

Vega and Cap have it down: they don’t even need words to communicate. Vega tells an increasingly agitated Palomino that they’ve “logged twenty IUDs missing from their inventory within the past year, right?”

“I’m not interested in harassing your former employees. I’m interested in finding the guy who took your IUDs and put them inside underage girls for the purpose of sex work.”

 

Everything on Palomino’s face got bigger—eyes, nostrils, mouth, which she covered with her hand.

 

“Sonofabitch,” she muttered into her palm.

 

“Yeah, that,” said Vega. “Now, please tell me, anyone stand out?”

It’s that simple and that complicated: Vega and Cap painstakingly uncover the facts and each solitary piece of evidence fleshes out the puzzle facing them. 

The Janes is a brutal and disturbing book: folks who sex-traffic underage Mexican girls are up to their necks in criminal enterprises originating on the US/Mexican border, with “about a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of meth, cocaine, and marijuana coming through per week, per tunnel.” Visceral details are enlivened with sporadic, darkly ironic humor like when Vega gets stoned with a dealer while prying out information. Cap sees Vega’s squinting eyes and smells “the woody smell coming off her clothes and hair”—where’s that steel-trap mind?

Cap was no longer sure he was tickled by Stoned Vega. He kind of missed Shit-Together Vega.

 

“Vega, you hearing me?”

Stoned or sober, Vega and Cap suss out the truth behind the Janes’s deaths. On their watch, victims are identified, and justice—albeit sometimes rough and ready—is administered. The Janes is another tour de force by Louisa Luna—bring on Alice Vega #3.

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