Aya de León is having kind of a mini-moment within mystery/crime circles. When the movie Hustlers came out back in September, influencers in the crime fiction world recommended de León’s work as it has thematic similarities to the popular film: underpaid women stuck at dead end sex worker jobs (with the resulting cultural stigma) who develop a side hustle in order to make ends meet. Both side hustles involve soaking rich white men and both the film and de León’s book portray the women as some sort of modern day Robin Hoods.
But that’s really where the similarities end. I won’t give a full review on Hustlers, though I do encourage you to see it if you have not yet done so. But Uptown Thief is a far more complicated, nuanced look at the realities of sex work, gender, and the criminal justice system.
In the book, these women commit crimes in large part to help finance a free clinic for sex workers, one that provides shelter from abusers, classes on entrepreneurship and healthcare that they would not otherwise receive. The means to an end is greater here: there are real stakes involved.
There’s not a single plot thread that goes through Uptown Thief. It took me two tries to read it as it can lose the reader leaping from one scene to the next. What kept me hooked this time was the character of Marisol Riviera. This book is really about her more than it’s about any one single crime. Through her experiences as a survivor, a sex worker, a CEO, and, yes, a hustler, Aya de León is able to communicate all she is trying to say through an engaging character whose well-being I was invested in. I found myself rooting for Marisol the whole time, even while being frustrated at some of her decisions. You can see her however you want but I admire a writer who can present a fully realized character to let the audience read how they may. I felt like there was nothing held back and that made every small consequence in the book feel real. In other words, it earns its moments because of her.
The book does have some drawbacks. As I said before: I’m not a fan of stories without a solid plot. Some of the dialogue can be a bit clunky. And, though I’m not complaining about this, I realize the irony in the primary male character being the most poorly written one as this is often a huge issue when men write about women. Still, because his character is supposed to shoulder a large part of the burden, I was hoping for more.
Nevertheless, this is an awesome book and a great companion if you liked Hustlers or if you want to read a crime tale focused on the realities of sex work. Whether or not you do, check out Aya de León’s essay on her stories and the movie.