(CNN) -- Critics and a growing number of fans call Richard Lange an up-and-coming name in crime fiction, but don't tell him that.
"I don't even call myself a crime writer," Lange recently said. "I'll take the title but I would call myself more of a grime writer because my novels always seem to end up on the grimy end of the spectrum."
The award-winning author's new noir novel, "Angel Baby," is hitting stores this week. The story is set in the criminal underworld of Tijuana and Southern California, but to Lange, it's more than just another crime tale -- it's a way to explore how humans interact. "Angel Baby" is intense, extreme and definitely grimy and readers will find that's a good thing.
In the book, Luz, the trophy wife of a vicious drug lord called "El Principe" goes on the run from her prisoner-like life in Tijuana. She steals a gun and a pile of cash from her husband and flees for the border, hoping to sneak into the United States and find the daughter she left behind years ago. Along the way, she gets help from an alcoholic ex-surfer, all while a crooked border patrol officer and a scary hit man nicknamed "El Apache" try to track her down.
The story is thrilling and cinematic, told as one long chase scene. Lange says that's by design, "I wanted to tell this compelling tale, a chase, that begins in chapter one and carries readers along with it to the final page."
Beyond the basic plot, Lange inhabits his novel's characters. There's no pure black and white to them, only varying and unexpected shades of gray.
"Even the worst characters in the book, the villains and the bad guys, I always try and give them some human element that makes them recognizable to people. You might not agree with their motivations but I try to make the reader understand them," Lange said.
Lange compares his writing process to that of an actor, working out a backstory, delving into psychological motivations so each character can develop a voice.
"If you've done a good enough job they will surprise you," he said, "and if it surprises you, it will surprise the reader."
Readers will also enjoy Lange's dangerous and desperate portrayal of Tijuana, what he lovingly describes as "a wild west town." The dichotomy of a former tourist hot spot was part of what sparked him to write the book.
"It's possibly the quintessential border town. There's smuggling going on there, both human and drugs. There's a sense of lawlessness," Lange said. "What fascinated me was here you have all this poverty and then right across the border you can actually see these nice new subdivisions going up on the hills on the American side overlooking Tijuana. I had this idea of these people sort of trapped there. It just seemed a very rich terrain."
This is only his third published book -- his second novel -- and he believes he can only get better.
"In a way every novel is a failed project because it never lives up to what's in your head. You can never get everything down on paper," he said.
Lange is a 2009 winner of a Guggenheim fellowship, a former magazine editor turned full-time writer. He's a fan of writers as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Raymond Carver. He's also a self-described adrenaline junkie and a long time Los Angeles resident. He loves his hometown, calling it a wild place to live, with a very real air of danger.
"I saw a guy get shot two blocks from my house last year. I was out eating at a pizza parlor and across the street we hear POW, POW, POW, 'Look out!' It was a gang shooting, two guys in hoodies go running up the street and a guy was dead on the sidewalk," he said.
Despite the danger, Lange said he couldn't live anywhere else.
He's already hard at work on his next novel, also set in the criminal underworld. It's only in the early stages but it's the story of a con man.
Lange said he's enjoying his new fans and all the critical praise.
"I'm extremely happy about any accolades I get because the book business is extremely hard right now, so every little bit helps," he said.
Lange is also "taking meetings" with people from Hollywood about possible future film or television projects, but adds, "I don't let my head get too swollen with dreams of Hollywood glamor. My bread and butter are the books. That's what I most enjoy."
Crime fiction fans will enjoy "Angel Baby" for now and fans can look forward to more of Lange's "grime" in the future.
"I don't even know if I'm a success yet," he said, "but I'm a contender. I'm in there."