Review: Safe by Ryan Gattis

Safe by Ryan Gattis
Safe by Ryan Gattis
Safe by Ryan Gattis is a gritty, fast-paced thriller that hurtles readers toward a shocking conclusion that asks the toughest question of all: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?

Former addict Ricky Mendoza, Jr., aka “Ghost,” is a safecracker. He’s a good one too, working for the DEA and other law enforcement for over ten years since he got clean. He’s also trusted by them, and he’s about to violate that trust in the biggest way possible.

I’m feeling it. Adrenaline burning in me like getting tattooed on the inside. That’s how I know I’m still taking the money. As much as I can get away with.

I kneel back down at the safe, and pull cash out by the fistful. There’s a problem, though, as I’m laying it out, and I feel a knot getting tight inside me. This isn’t small bills from a street slinging. It’s not a mess of tens and twenties or wadded-up fives pressed flat from junkies. It’s all fucking hundreds. Too neat.

Safe guts never look like this, all clean.

This is good news, but it’s also very bad news.

All this cash might mean a delivery was coming. Cash on hand to get sent back to Mexico. That’s the likeliest. I’m still wondering why the runners didn’t take what was in here when they bounced, but then I get to thinking that maybe they didn’t have the key. Maybe only their boss had the key and he wasn’t here or couldn’t get here quick enough before la DEA came knocking or—

I tell my brain to shut up.

I even say it out loud to calm me down, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”

Ghost shoves hundreds by the handful in his clothes and socks and drives away. He knows it’s the beginning of the end, but he needs the cash for a good reason—to help someone he cares about. He knows it’s probably only a matter of time before he’s found out, though. 

Meanwhile, Rudy Reyes—aka “Glasses,” a fixer for a larger criminal enterprise—gets a call from Collins, his contact at the DEA … which is also Ghost’s contact. Something was off about that safe. The safe that Glasses and his men planted especially as a gift for the DEA. Uh oh.

Glasses now has to go after Ghost and teach him a lesson, because it’s what he does. But lately, he really doesn’t want to do it anymore. Not since his wife Leya, and not since his little boy Felix was born. Getting out is looking better and better. Here, he talks about when he really started considering getting out.

The real reason why I started working for Collins was the narco-cocinas. What those are, are narco-kitchens, the type that cartels use to disappear people.

I’d been hearing stories on these for a while, mostly from Baja, not believing them, but they kept going around, always saying how after people get prolly tortured and definitely killed, cartels try to disintegrate the bodies with high heat from the fires.

But I didn’t hear about that worked until Hector came back from Mexico with stories about what he had to do, back before he had a big gut and smoked too much.

What happened was, he had to cut holes in a big metal barrels, then drop whatever person deserved it in headfirst. That’s if they’re going in whole, he said. Otherwise, it’s just parts.

After, he poured diesel. Five gallons is what it took to burn anybody off the planet when he lit it.

What Hector said was, when he first started, he wasn’t able to eat meat for weeks and weeks. He said raw chicken smells exactly the same as human flesh when they cook.

Exactamente, that was the word Hector said to make sure I knew there was no difference, and he had this look in his eye as he was saying it, like the type a bird gets when it’s wild and sick, when it can’t fly but it’s gonna try to.

What I felt when he said it that way, the word just got stuck down inside me. To do that to a wife, a mother? A daughter? It’s unforgiveable, completely. Just hearing that told me where the line was, you know? That, right there? That’s too far.

So, there is a core of good in Glasses and a pure shot of goodness in Ghost. The thing with Ghost is that he’s been smelling odd things recently, which tells him his cancer is back. He beat it before, but it’s going to kill him this time—and soon—so he’s going to help some people before he goes out.

The money he’s stolen is to go toward helping his employer and mentor, Frank, pay off his mortgage, then it will go to help others pay off theirs. It’s 2008, and the city is in the middle of a housing crisis. It’s the least he can do. The problem is, now he’s got Glasses and the DEA nipping at his heels.

There’s also the painful memory of Rose—the only girl he ever loved—and her death from cancer. It’s a hole in his very soul, and it provides the melancholy backbeat to the story in contrast to the punk rock that she loved so much and that Ghost still listens to, conjuring up her face and the love he still has for her.

What really makes this a standout is Gattis’s talent for portraying people that operate firmly in the “gray zone” (some tending toward the darker end) as very, very human and his obviously exhaustive research into the many ins and outs of various criminal enterprises. Rooster—Glasses’s boss—and his crew even use American Sign Language to communicate in certain circumstances.

I loved these characters. I love that Ghost just wants to do some good in his very messed up world before he goes out for good. Hell, I loved this book. Gattis explores some pretty big themes—like addiction, mortality, and of course, the huge gap that can lie between right and wrong—without sacrificing an undeniably cinematic touch. Also, the ending will surprise you. In a good way. If you’re looking for something intelligent, fast-paced, sometimes funny, and certainly noir but with a huge heart, snap this one up.

Read an excerpt from Safe!


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Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all posts by Kristin Centorcelli for Criminal Element.


  1. Jose Jackson

    This is so so good. Punchy and yet touching it tells the story of a heist in LA that unfolds over 48 hours happy wheels. It’s the first time in a while I’ve brushed a tear from my face when reading. I also ❤️ the playlists I got from Rose’s mix at the beginning. This is going to be a HUGE film I reckon.

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