Posts Tagged ‘Dope Thief’

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.

I recently reviewed Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya, which I regard as a prime example of a classic setup played off right. As such, it’s an illustration of what I like about genre fiction in general.

Note the term “classic setup.”

The plot of Dope Thief revolves around a small-time thief who pulls what’s supposed to be a routine job, and unexpectedly finds himself in possession of a huge wad of cash. He realizes too late that he’s stolen organized crime money, and that some very dangerous characters will be coming after him to collect.

Variations on that setup have been done plenty of different times. But Tafoya throws in plenty of overt and covert references to classic crime fiction, communicating he’s well aware of this.

Sometimes, I hear people complain about genre fiction, saying that it’s essentially the same thing being done over and over.

To me, this is tantamount to complaining that the the classic song structure of verse-chorus-verse is inherently hackneyed. And yeah, there’s plenty of derivative crap on the radio. But plenty of vital, innovative music follows the verse-chorus-verse structure is still getting released, which means that isn’t the quality that makes a song derivative crap.

The classic song structure remains viable because:

1) It works, and

2) Part of the appeal is seeing what new variations songwriters get out of that configuration.

So let’s look at, say, the classic hard-boiled detective story. (more…)

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.