Posts Tagged ‘crime thriller’

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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As you’ve probably gathered from this blog, I read a lot. But I pick my reading material in kind of a haphazard way, so I can’t claim to be up on the latest trends or have comprehensive knowledge of any particular genre.

So maybe this isn’t as rare as I think. But here’s the deal. With his debut novel, Silent City, Alex Segura has written a crime thriller set in Miami populated by … get this … actual human beings.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of what Dave Barry has called the “bunch of nuts in South Florida genre” of crime fiction. Love Tim Dorsey. Carl Hiaasen is like a god to me. (Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” is a bit more problematic. And I stopped following the TV series, which I hear jumped the shark big-time after I wrote this post. *Sigh*)

Much of the fun of the aforementioned writers is their over-the-top style and zany characters. I also admire the way that Hiaasen manages to get in touches that humanize even the most eccentric of his characters, such as the hirsute thug “Tool” in “Skinny Dip.”

That being said, you can overwork even the most appealing story elements, as I wrote about here. I love it when I’m reading a detective story published in the 1940s, and a dame who looks like trouble walks into a private dick’s office. I cringe when the same thing happens in a book published in 2013. Sometimes there’s a fine line between paying homage to a classic convention, and kicking it to death in the alley out back.

Segura’s book has many of the elements of a vintage hard-boiled detective novel. A missing woman. A mysterious killer. A hard-drinking hero with one last shot at redemption, and a cast of characters as apt to drop false leads as they are to provide clues.

And Miami’s no safer than it is in the conventional crime thriller set there. It’s still the Wild West on crank, full of drug runners, killers-for-hire and corrupt cops. This is no cozy mystery.

But “Silent City” feels refreshing in large part because the characters ring true. They’re motivated by recognizable emotions, and behave in believable ways when thrust into desperate situations. The story is set around a newspaper. And as a former longtime newspaper reporter myself, I can verify that Segura nailed the different personality types who haunt newsrooms.

One of those is the hero of the book, sports editor Pete Fernandez.

Pete’s on a downward spiral. He’s still licking his wounds from a broken relationship, mourning the recent death of his homicide detective father, and barely managing to choke back his anger at the smarmy corporate types gathering at his newspaper like hyenas to feast on newspaper journalism’s corpse.

He’s drinking heavily, sabotaging what remains of his career and pissing off his few remaining friends.

Then a dodgy columnist from his paper approaches him with an unusual request. He wants Pete to look into the disappearance of his daughter — an investigative reporter who was working on a piece about a mysterious underworld assassin known only as “Silent Death.”

Dangerous complication arise, as they will in this type of story. Nobody’s giving Pete a lot of credit. But he learned a trick or two from his father, and may have more grit and resources at his disposal than either friend or enemy suspects.

In the best noir fashion, the ensuing mystery dredges up some ghosts from Pete’s past. And it has the requisite double-crosses, edgy characters and twists.

I guess really, that’s the challenge for any writer of genre fiction. Hitting the beats that make fans love the genre in the first place, without hitting them so predictably that they’re drained of all vitality. Segura manages that balance admirably.

And he ends the story with a promise of more to come. That’s good news for fans of quality crime fiction.

Dope ThiefDope Thief by Dennis Tafoya is about a couple of guys who rob dope dealers for a living, and have to go on the run from some dangerous characters after they mistakenly pick up a big stash of organized crime loot.

Except it’s really not.

I mean, yeah, that’s the basic plot. But the book is really about how our past has a way of haunting us at every turn, and our attempts to escape from that. It’s also about the question of whether we can shed our family history. And whether — for all the emotional baggage and misery it can bring us — we’d really want to.

The protagonist, Ray, and his partner are a couple of bottom feeders in a criminal community extending into Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. They make their living disguising themselves as DEA agents, ripping off small-time drug dealers, and making off with their money and dope.

In a clever twist, they’re able to get away with it because they provide a kind of service to the larger operations — getting rid of small-time dealers who might eat into profits.

Yet Ray isn’t a violent man. Or a bad guy, for that matter. He had an alcoholic father and a troubled youth that included some jail time. He just kind of went along with where his life was taking him, much the way another young man might go the college-and-career route without even considering other options. For him, the whole theft operation represents the path of least resistance — a chance to get money for a minimum of effort.

But he’s not getting any younger, and knows he can’t keep it up forever. Inevitably, that wake-up call comes when a job goes bad, people get killed, and he and his partner end up the unwilling possessors of some New England bikers’ money.

It starts out in pure thriller territory. An initial car chase from the scene of the original botched operation is particularly suspenseful.

From there, the story takes some unexpected directions. And I’m not talking about plot twists — though there are a few of those — so much as emphasis and pacing.

Tafoya doesn’t let up on the suspense. But for stretches, the central plot fades into the background as Ray comes to grips with the chain of circumstances that led him into this predicament. Sure, he knows he’s made some bad decisions. But he finds himself facing the question of whether his life experiences left him equipped to make any better ones.

More importantly, does he have it within himself to rise above those experiences and decisions, and make something better of his life?

Tafoya addresses those questions in a surprising extended coda, where minor characters and circumstances that would merely serve as color in another crime thriller turn out to be vitally important.

Crime thrillers often get criticized for piling on the slam-bang action, at the expense of characterization and deeper insights. With Dope Thief, fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition.