MysteryPeople Review: THE POOR BOY’S GAME


The Poor Boy’s Game by Dennis Tafoya

If there was any justice in publishing, Dennis Tafoya would be a name everyone would know.  With only two books, Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park, his ability to convey the hardship and raw emotion of people on the margins has already made him a respected voice in the genre. No punches are pulled in his delivery, and though it’s been a few years, Tafoya’s back in full force with his third novel, The Poor Boy’s Game.

Following Frannie Mullen, a US Marshal, the book begins with a well-crafted buildup to a shootout in downtown Philadelphia. Frannie goes into what appears to be a routine take-down in a sports memorabilia store, but then, things go wrong. And once the shooting starts, Tafoya captures the brutality of every bullet, including the one that takes out Frannie’s partner.

Blamed for the shooting, Frannie resigns from the Marshals and is caught in a dark limbo connected with her past. That past suddenly comes charging back when Frannie’s father, Patrick Mullen, a brutal union enforcer, escapes from federal prison, leaving behind a bloody trail of witnesses. It’s up to Frannie to protect her newly sober sister, Mae, and Patrick’s pregnant girlfriend from her father, putting Frannie between the feds who think she helped him escape and union boss Adolf White, who knows the truth behind Patrick’s rampage.

While The Poor Boy’s Game has all the trappings of a great hard boiled novel, the story is, essentially, the portrait of a family. Tafoya shows us the cracks and fissures parents can create in the relationships between siblings. He shows how familial love, no matter how broken or twisted, can survive. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not this is good or bad.

The Poor Boy’s Game is Dashiell Hammett slammed into Eugene O’Neill. It puts us in the grimy world of the Mullens, letting us feel every drop of cold sweat. The dialogue is that of a darker Elmore Leonard and can be as harrowing as some of the fight scenes. The Poor Boy’s Game is a crime thriller that shows how a bruised heart still beats. Welcome back to the game, Dennis. It’s good to have you.

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Dennis Tafoya leads a free writing workshop here at BookPeople this Thursday, May 1 at 6:30pm. Bring a pen and paper and join us up on the third floor. No registration or RSVP required. 

3 Picks from Chris

It’s Summer! If you live in Texas then you know what that means; brutal heat and praying at the altar of central air conditioning. Summer is also the perfect time to crack into a great book. I’ve got a few suggestions I think will help you forget about the heat…at least for a few hours.

Joyland by Stephen King

Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever. Joyland is Stephen King at his best; fun, exciting, and heartbreaking.

The Eye of God by James Rollins

Have you ever wondered what a mash up of Indiana Jones and James Bond would be like? Well James Rollins has been answering that question over the year with his Sigma Force novels. In The Eye of God Gray Pierce and his team are tasked with recovering an American satellite that crashed in China. The satellite is especially valuable because it contains vital information about the impending doom of the Atlantic coast. Villains, heroes, guns, and a dash of humor make The Eye of God one of the best Summer reads on our shelves.

The Shotgun Rule by Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston is one hell of a great crime writer. His books are hilarious, brutal, and endlessly entertaining. MysteryPeople is very excited to be hosting Charlie on July 24th. His new novel, Skinner, goes on sale July 9th but if you can’t wait that long grab a copy of The Shotgun Rule (description below) to whet your whistle.

“Blood spilled on the asphalt of this town long years gone has left a stain, and it’s spreading. Not that a thing like that matters to teenagers like George, Hector, Paul, and Andy. It’s summer 1983 in a northern California suburb, and these working-class kids have been killing time the usual ways: ducking their parents, tinkering with their bikes, and racing around town getting high and boosting their neighbors’ meds. Just another typical summer break in the burbs. Till Andy’s bike is stolen by the town’s legendary petty hoods, the Arroyo brothers. When the boys break into the Arroyos’ place in search of the bike, they stumble across the brothers’ private industry: a crank lab. Being the kind of kids who rarely know better, they do what comes naturally: they take a stash of crank to sell for quick cash. But doing so they unleash hidden rivalries and crimes, and the dark and secret past of their town and their families.”

MysteryPeople Q&A: TAYLOR STEVENS

One of the most popular series at MysteryPeople is Taylor Steven’s The Informationist. Stevens’ novels feature Vanessa Michael Munroe, a bad ass who can get any information for anyone, and the character has already found her place in the genre in only two books. In the third, The Doll, she is forced to do a job against her will for a white slaver who threatens to kill her boyfriend, Logan, if she doesn’t comply. Taylor will be at BookPeople on Wednesday, June 12th, with Angel City author Jon Steele, in a discussion about their new thrillers. We got a chance to ask Taylor some questions ahead of time.

 

MysteryPeople: What was the main thing you wanted to do with Munroe in this book?

Taylor Stevens: I wanted to back her into a corner, put her in a situation where she didn’t have any tools or any control, a situation where she was both bad guy and victim, one in which there were no good choices to be made, only sacrifices, and then watch her mental and emotional process as she made the impossible choice of deciding who lived and who died, and then rely on wits alone to try to make justice out of the situation.

MP: The Doll Maker is your most chilling villain yet. How did you come up with him?

TS: Considering the sociopathic villain who enjoys watching people suffer has been used a lot in fiction, I wanted a villain so absolutely off-his-rocker insane that he came across as warm and personable while doing unbelievably horrendous things–the type of person who would invite you in for tea and sit and chat with you about politics and art while mixing strychnine with your sugar. What I personally find makes the Doll Maker chilling is that while yes, people are brutally harmed because of him, it’s not that he enjoys making it happen, it’s that he’s completely indifferent to it happening–he is completely disconnected from human emotion on all ends of the spectrum, as if he’s walking in an alternate universe.

MP: The Capstone group plays an important part in the book. What was your challenge of writing for a team when you usually deal with a lone wolf like Munroe?

TS: There are a lot more moving parts. Even in the littlest of things, such as keeping track of who is standing where, or what another person was doing while the others were off elsewhere—it’s a lot more to keep track of because if you inadvertently leave out a character, just because they’re not actually playing a role in a particular conversation or scene, it leaves a big glaring hole, and yet by adding too much of that detail it bogs the pacing down. It also makes it more difficult to do character development because when it comes to writing thrillers, you’re limited to word count and to keeping up the action and the pacing. So if you have three characters on a team, and they’re all on the hunt trying to track someone down, you can’t just stop the action and take a page to fill in the blanks. Finding a way to draw the characters with as few brush strokes as possible is challenging, and it has to fit in with the action.

MP: Because of the Capstone element you were able to inject more humor. Was that something you were looking to do more of as a writer?

TS: It wasn’t something that I deliberately set out to do, and I was actually very nervous in that regard because the possibility for it coming off as camp and cheesy was pretty high. Most of the humor was in dialogue between the Capstone team and I chose to go this route after several conversations with men who’d lived through war. I came to understand that this sort of mindset is what helps to mute the stress of a situation, so the humor wasn’t inserted as a way to be funny, it was there to stay true to character.

MP: How do you think Vanessa has changed since The Informationist?

TS: I tend to see each book as a snapshot of Munroe’s life. No matter what else is going on in the story or who else plays a role, ultimately these books are a continuation of her life. As such, she’s affected by whatever happened to her previously—in other words, not only is her childhood and teenage years part of her backstory, but the events in every book also become part of her. I find that she has softened in some aspects and, especially because of the events in The Informationist, she has allowed herself to rely on others, and she continues to make peace with the choices that she’s made. But, she also hurts more because of the experiences she’s been through—she doesn’t walk away from The Doll emotionally unscathed—and this will see her continuing to evolve and change as she progresses through the snapshots of each book.

MP: Can you tell us about what you have in store for her in the future?

TS: The Catch, the fourth book in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series, finds Munroe back in Africa and tangled up in a ship hijacking where nothing is what it appears to be. Writing The Doll, with its two distinct story lines, two plots, two casts of characters, in two time zones—each with its own pacing and action and need for octane—all of which had to zipper together seamlessly, was so incredibly difficult that I hope to never do that again. In The Catch, I go the exact opposite route. It’s the first book I’ve written that has only one point of view—Munroe’s—and in it we get to watch how she operates when she arrives in a country that she’s never been to before, without any connections, where there are people she doesn’t know who clearly want her dead.

 

MP Guest Post: JOHN VORHAUS

The Texas Twist by John Vorhaus (now available at MysteryPeople)

THE WEIRDNESS RUBS OFF, IT DOES

By John Vorhaus

One of the reasons I decided to set my new novel, The Texas Twist, in Austin is that I’ve long loved the city from afar, and rightly figured that a trip to the town would certainly be called for, in the name of both research and spurious tax deductions. So, at a crucial and yet wholly arbitrary point in the novel’s development, I flew from my California home to see if the most not-Texas part of Texas lived up to its billing.

And from the giant guitars in the airport baggage claim area to the fried pickles at Abel’s on the Lake, I knew I was home. A place this self-consciously weird, I thought, must necessarily make room for the scam artists and scalawags who populate the world of my imagination. And the Cathedral of Junk? Man, if I can’t find a reason to weave that location into my tale, dude, I ain’t half trying.

Now look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. It’s not like I did serious research or anything. That wouldn’t be me. I hate research like a cat hates baths. All I did was…absorb Austin. I saw the sights, ate the food, drank the beer, and just basically contemplated the isness of it all. And when my long weekend was over, when I’d consumed all the bodacious barbecue and (512) Pecan Porter I could handle, I went home and let my new awareness of Austin inform and shape the rest of the work on my novel, both the completion of the first draft and the fervid rewrites that followed.

Now look (he said again, violating his own personal rules against A) starting consecutive paragraphs the same way and 2) referring to himself in the third person), I don’t normally pad guest blogs like this with excerpts from my own work, but in this case I think it’s justified. In order for you to understand how my trip to Austin made its way into my work, I give you this “clip” from the text, wherein our hero, Radar Hoverlander, appraises the work of his new enemy, Adam Ames, thus:

Ames forcefully percolated his own personality through detailed elaborations of his newfound love for Austin, Texas. To Radar, Adam’s monversation appeared almost formulaic. No, it was formulaic. 1) Name an Austin trait or landmark. 2) Express admiration for one of its qualities. 3) Make a self-deprecating joke. 4) Swear loyalty.

He did this four times.

I mean, the food in this town? I had ribs at the Salt Lick. Seriously delicious. But I’d better be careful.” He patted his stomach. “Flab city, right? Anyway, the locals tell me that Artz’s is the real deal for barbecue. I can’t wait to try them all.

Hook ‘em Horns, yeah? Big 12 champions, baby. If I had a spare arm and a leg, I’d get season tickets.

South by Southwest, does anything rock harder? Not that me and my tin ear would know. Still, great for the city, huh?”

And so on.

If you’re flattered, I’m happy, but I have to warn you: All the characters in my novels are con artists, self-serving fabulists, and shameless liars. Ames is happy to swear loyalty to Austin because it serves his nefarious ends. He would swear loyalty to Hákarl, which is fermented Icelandic shark and the world’s most vile food, if it he thought it would advance him toward his goals. So, yeah, my characters fall in love with Austin but, yeah, they can’t entirely be trusted.

That, I think, is what gives them their charm.

And in that sense, they’re a perfect fit for Austin, not because y’all is liars and whatnot, but because (according to my outsider’s perspective) yours is a city that has more than the normal amount of self-awareness…bordering on self-consciousness. It seems to me that keeping Austin weird is as much your holy mission as Lourdes’ is to keep itself miraculous. I salute you for that. Seriously, I think it’s awesome and great.

And for the record, I did find a way to shoehorn the Cathedral of Junk into my yarn. Did I do a good job? Did I capture the authentic mis en scene of that crème-de-la-weird locale? Guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Which was kind of the idea in the first place.

I hope you enjoy the read, and I hope I’ve done justice to the town you call home. If you have questions, comments, or gripes, I am entirely at your service. -jv

 

 

MP Pick of the Month: A SERPENT’S TOOTH by Craig Johnson

WARNING: While no major plot point is clearly revealed to do this review some are hinted at.

A Serpent’s Tooth is possibly the oddest book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. While it has all the elements of humor, action, and strong characterizations, the tone does a a major, though seamless, shift to extremes. In a lesser authors hands this book would fall apart, but in Johnson’s it may be a landmark book in the series.

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Foreshadowing the later half of the the book, A Serpent’s Tooth starts with Walt attending a funeral of one of Durant’s matrons. When one of her peers at the service tells him about the angel who does her household repairs for food, he looks into it and finds Cord Lynear in her home. A teenage “lost boy”, Cord has been kicked out of a polygamy sect because he took the attention of the younger girls away from the elders. Walt decides to help the boy find his missing mother, taking a zig-zag journey around the American west.
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The subject of fringe religions gives Johnson great opportunity for Johnson to practice his skill for eccentric characters and the folks who have the patience to deal with them. We get a man who believes he is a two hundred year old gunman for Brigham Young and wait until you meet the UFO man. Fans of Vic Moretti will be happy to know the sexy, wise ass deputy is often on hand for commentary.
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The first part of the the book has a curious feel feel to it, since there is no clear crime to investigate. The middle takes on a somewhat intentionally convoluted nature of a James Crumley novel, involving militias, the CIA, the oil business, and a very unique form of theft. The ultimate irony is that the clearer the picture becomes, the darker the story is. When Walt half opens this Pandora’s box of evil, it will change his life and the lives of many of his deputies, ending one.
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In many ways, A Serpent’s Tooth is a look at institutions that fail the people. Organized religion and agencies both public and private either ignore, betray, or at times prey on on individuals and communities for their own interest. The only institution that comes off well is local law enforcement. Walt gets a lot of help from fellow sheriffs. They are the last line of defense against corruption.
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Set in the Fall, A Serpent’s Tooth also deals with change. It sets up its hero and several of the supporting characters to take a look at the direction in their lives and possibly choose new ones. In a little over three hundred pages it goes from humorous to heartbreaking, capturing life in it’s mess, craziness, nobility, and most of all it’s fragility. Much like the book there is a beauty to it’s strangeness.
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Craig Johnson will be at BookPeople, June 11th, 7PM to discuss and sign A Serpent’s Tooth.

MysteryPeople Q&A: REED FARREL COLEMAN

Reed Farrel Coleman’s Onion Street, is our Pick of The Month for good reason. Both well plotted and poignant, it takes Reed’s Moe Prager character and gives us his coming of age in 1968 through an involving mystery. We got a chance to ask Reed a few questions about the book, the Sixties, and Moe, for a fun and interesting MysteryPeople interview.

MysteryPeople: In the Moe series, he refers to his past, but there isn’t much detail. Were you waiting to do this book?

Reed Farrel Coleman: I never planned the books in the series. I never sat down and said, “This is going to happen then,” or “Such event will be revealed in book 7.” It’s just not my nature to write that way. I wrote the Moe books as a kind of reflection of where I was in my life and where I had been. That is not to say they are strictly autobiographical. They aren’t. I just liked seeing where I was, the world was, and what I felt like exploring at any given time. Having said all that, I knew there were only going to be nine books in the series and that next year’s The Hollow Girl would be a book that took place in the here and now. It occurred to me that I had never really explored Moe’s becoming an adult. I thought the time had come for that because I’d just watched my children pass through that stage and I was nostalgic for that time period in my own life. It was a dangerous thing to do, to tackle a prequel and the 60s because they are often done so badly. But what the hell, right?

 

MP: Onion Street and Walter Mosely’s Little Green, which also deals with the late sixties counter culture, both came out this week and other crime fiction writers of your generation like Libby Fischer Hellman (Set The Night On Fire) and Edward Wright (From Blood) have used it lately for their novels as well as Robert Redford in his new thriller. Other than it being a the time period of Moe as a young man, what prompted you to look at that era?

RFC: Well, I think most things written about the 60s focus too much on the incredible chaos of the times and not the lives of the people who actually lived through them. I lived through them as a child and as a young teen, so I tried to see that time through the eyes of my older brothers and their pals. It also made me go back and look at Brooklyn not through my world wearied eyes, but my fresh eyes. I wanted to remember Brooklyn as I first saw it, long before it became the coolest place to live. Do you know that in France when they think something is hot or chic, they call it Tres Brooklyn or very Brooklyn. That was unimaginable to me in the Brooklyn I grew up in. I wanted to look at that world.

MP: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the period?

RFC: Great question. As I was telling my kids recently, just in the first 6 months of 1968, the following events happened: the Pueblo Incident, the Tet Offensive, Apollo Missions 5 & 6, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. 6 months! Are you kidding me? Yet in spite of that, my dad got up every morning and went to manage his grocery store. My mom still shopped and cooked and sent us off to school. My brothers went to college and I went to PS 209. I played stickball after school. Life went on. That was the thing. Life went on. Not everyone wore love beads, granny glasses, bell bottoms and long hair. Life shouldn’t be reduced to cliché and neither should books.

 

MP: I thought Lids, the burnt out prodigy turned drug dealer who helps out Moe, is one of your best supporting characters. He seemed so painfully real. Was he inspired by some of the people you grew up around?

RFC: I went to high school with some totally genius kids who never seemed very happy. I mean, is anyone very happy in high school? In any case, it was easy for me to remember those kids and extrapolate a character like lids. Lids, by the way, for those of you who didn’t live through the 60s, was a term for an amount of marijuana. You bought lids, not ounces or nickel bags. Research. I swear. I was too young to know that myself back then.

 

MP: Many of the Moe books take place in recent history. What is a key thought to have when writing about a period the reader may have lived through?

RFC: As I referenced earlier, make it about the characters’ lives, not about the historical touchstones. Don’t be heavy handed in your depiction of an era. Allude to it without shoving it in your readers’ faces. In the early books I did this by having Moe make predictions about the relevant new technologies and always getting it wrong. I do it in Onion Street as well. I think I learned that lesson because I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and many of the predictions those writers made were totally erroneous.

 

MP: Can you give a hint about what you have in store for Moe in the last book?

RFC: I’d be glad to. In The Hollow Girl, Moe is in a bad way. A woman out of Moe’s past hires him to find her missing daughter, but he’s not convinced she’s even missing. As Moe tries to pick up her trail, he confronts some hard questions about his past and about the rest of his life. I dare not say more. I can tell you I think it will be a fitting end to the series.