Book Review: “The Poor Boy’s Game” by Dennis Tafoya

Posted: August 21, 2014 in Books, Writers
Tags: , , , , , ,

Poor Boys GameI’m reluctant to tell you the plot of Dennis Tafoya’s novel “The Poor Boy’s Game.”

Not because of spoilers. More because a basic synopsis of the plot may give you the impression that it’s a very different kind of book than it actually is.

I’m reminded of the time I got ambushed — there’s really no other way to describe it — by Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

I was getting ready to take a long car trip, and checking out the books-on-CD selection at the library for something to listen to on the drive. On a whim, I happened to pick up “No Country for Old Men,” knowing nothing about the book or its author.

The dust jacket described the plot. A guy discovers a cache of organized crime loot and goes on the run with it, pursued by a relentless hit man. Meanwhile, an old-school sheriff goes searching for hunter and hunted alike to head off any bloodshed.

My reaction? “Gee, that’s original.” Seemed like the kind of book where you could not only predict all the major plot developments, but the pages where they occur.

But I figured what the heck, I’d give it a listen anyway. And … Ho … Lee … Shit!

Technically, yeah, the sequence of events on the dust jacket described the plot. But  it was in no way the conventional thriller it sounded like.

Tafoya’s novel is nowhere near as bleak as McCarthy’s. But it’s similar in the respect that it starts with what looks like a fairly conventional set-up for a crime thriller, then takes it to unexpected places for a richer and more nuanced story than you initially thought you were going to get. (Unless you’ve read Tafoya’s stuff in the past, and know not to expect the commonplace.)

The story concerns U.S. Marshal Frannie Mullen, who finds herself suspended when an operation goes bad. Then the bad news keeps mounting. Her father, who provided muscle for some local thugs before going away to prison, has escaped. He’s brought violence into her life before. And judging by the fact that somebody is intent on killing her, it seems old habits die hard.

As in Tafoya’s previous novel “Dope Thief,” he sets up the main conflict and then spends a lot of time wandering away from it. It often annoys me when thriller writers do that. Call me a Philistine, but I’m just not that interested in the criminal profiler’s troubled relationship with his estranged wife. I want to know how the whole catching-the-serial-killer thing is shaping up.

In Tafoya’s novels, though, that meandering is one of their strongest attributes. The situation obliges Mullen to revisit and try to make sense of the damage her father left behind in her life, and that of her alcoholic sister.

As a Philadelphia-area resident myself, I can verify that Tafoya has a good feel for the details of the city where the story takes place. The vernacular. The attitude. The overall texture of the perhaps inappropriately nicknamed City of Brotherly Love.

All of this gives the book a naturalistic, lived-in vibe. The characters come across as real people, not the catchphrase-spouting automatons that populate too many crime thrillers. You actually feel like you’re hanging out with these people, watching their lives unfold. As a result, the action sequences pack that much more of a wallop.

So I’d highly recommend “Poor Boy’s Game.” Like Frannie Mullen, you might find that checking out a familiar neighborhood with a new perspective yields some rewarding insights.

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