It’s a Mystery: “There’s nothing, nothing on earth as dumb as a teenage boy”
By Dennis Tafoya
Minotaur Books, 2010
Dennis Tafoya, author of The Wolves of Fairmont Park, brings to mind some better-known heavy hitters in his trade, while clearly possessing his own original voice. To put him in the context of gritty, insightful crime novels, let’s talk about a few of the finest.
Top of the line, top of my list: The Friends of Eddie Coyle(1972) by George V. Higgins. When Higgins debut novel appeared, he was an assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Higgins portrayal of petty hoods and urban pols on the take, richly flavored with the idiom of the Boston Irish as he heard and then reinvented it, got him dubbed the Damon Runyon of the Massachusetts bar. He displayed an uncanny ear for the argot of the underworld. His ability to capture its textures and rhythms in fiction without losing authenticity immediately established him as an impressive chronicler of the lifestyle and mores of the small-time hoodlum such as Coyle, “a small fish in the Boston underworld,” for whom crime is the only thing that does pay. Moreover, for those of us who are aficionados of the genre it was a rare example of a member of the law and order establishment probing without pious conclusions the behavior and mind states of the petty thief and murderer. At the time, an enraged and admiring Norman Mailer (true to form) said of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, “What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.”
Elmore Leonard, no slouch in the crime thriller department, declared in his introduction to 2000 edition of Eddie Coyle:
In the beginning, both Higgins and I had to put up with labels applied to our work, critics calling us the second coming of Raymond Chandler. At the time we first met, at a reading in Toronto, George and I agreed that neither of us had come out of the Hammett-Chandler school of crime writing. My take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example – which I’ve listed a number of times as the best crime novel ever written – makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew…. Higgins has been called the Balzac of Boston while I’ve been labeled the Dickens of Detroit. We didn’t discuss it, so I’m not sure what George thought of his alliterative tag. What I wonder is who I’d be if I lived in Chicago.”
It’s not Chicago but Washington, D.C. that’s the turf of another of Tafoya’s influences, George P. Pelecanos. An Emmy-nominated writer on the HBO hit series The Wire, he made his name with his PI Nick Stefanos trilogy – A Firing Offense (1992), Nick’s Trip (1993), and the best, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go (1995) – which shows why he’s been called the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world. In between the second and third volumes, he wrote Shoedog (1994, a lean, violent piece of pulp fiction that is vintage Pelecanos. His Derek Strange quartet (2001-4) teams a black ex-cop and his white partner who get down and dirty in the underbelly of the nation’s capitol where racism, violence, and drugs are part of everyday life. These conditions apply equally to the Philadelphia underbelly of Dennis Tafoya. Noteworthy: Pelecanos’s The Turnaround (2008) has a plot that begins where Tafoya winds up in The Wolves of Fairmount Park: “In 1972, three teenagers drove into an unfamiliar neighborhood and six lives were altered forever.”
Lastly, there is another Irish-American, Dennis Lehane, indisputably the contemporary bard of blue-collar Boston. His work featuring the dynamic PI duo Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie are superb novels of suspense. He introduced the acclaimed series in 1994 with A Drink Before War, but it’s his previous installment, Gone, Baby, Gone, that remains unforgettable. Happily, 2010 brings a new Kenzie/Gennaro novel, Moonlight Mile. Of course, for many the name Lehane conjures up Mystic River (2001), a powerfully bleak tale of childhood buddies reunited in the aftermath of a murder. Lehane powerfully portrays young boys at the mercy of thoroughly evil men, naively becoming imperfect people who try to do the right thing. He has said,
I write about people who struggle in the margins, who live compromised lives but who are still smart and aware and want more from life than their roles would suggest.
And here’s Tafoya, who admits that Lehane is an influence:
I like the challenge of trying to get readers interested in very screwed-up people, and to care what happens to them.
What were the teens doing there? Buying drugs? According to the lead detective on the case, Danny Martinez, who has contacts among all the drug dealers, neither young man was known to be using. “Two kids in the wrong place at the wrong time” is the police department’s favored scenario. Unfortunately, it’s an assumption that doesn’t help identify the drive-by shooter and uncover his motive. And, as even the deadbeats know, kill a cop’s kid—you’re killing a cop. As Danny Martinez’s Captain tells him:
“This is our family, Danny.”
Martinez knew that but he was smart enough to let the Captain do his thing and say his piece…. Danny knew cops well enough to know that respect was the real currency. At some level it was why you became a cop….
“We go out and wade through this shit night and day, and we need to know there’s a bubble around our wives and kids. That they’re looked out for. Protected.” Danny nodded and the Captain went on….
“I need a head on a pike outside this house…. This has to be answered, and I mean right fucking now.”
In the massive search to find the shooter, no precinct stone is left unturned. Ironically, the cops find an unlikely ally in Orlando, the junkie younger brother of Brendan Donovan the officer whose son was shot. Unlikely because Orlando is strung out on drugs much of the time. Tafoya’s descriptions of addicts and their highs ring as true as a police siren:
Orlando walked up the stairs to the boardinghouse off Green Lane…. He was on the clock. It had been most of the day since he’d fixed and he needed to get high…there were pulses of electricity shooting in his arms and legs and a hot line running from his temple to his jaw that was his jones waking up….the door was ajar and Zoe was inside.
“What’s wrong, babe?”
“My brother Brendan, his son got shot up…he’s in a coma.”…
Orlando shucked off his jacket and pulled his works out of a hole in the lining…he tied himself off and banged up the vein in the crook of his arm, the needle in his teeth like a knife…he pulled up some of his own blood into the needle, then fired into his vein…. He held her thin body to him with one hand and with the other dumped the rest of the dope out of the small bag and pushed it into lines on the top of the dresser with the edge of a snapped-off CD. He made a small noise in his throat, an animal moan that was the dope beginning to land. Zoe bent to the dresser and inhaled the lines and they both fell back…listening to that faint hum, like for that moment you could hear your own electricity, the circuits and wires that carried the current giving off sparks that snapped and rang inside….
He said: “I’m going down into the caverns…. I need you up top holding the rope…. I’m going to see things. All the things that no one has seen for a thousand years. All the world left underground.”
Strung out or not, Orlando is on a tear to find the killer of his nephew and his nephew’s friend. Orlando’s ultimate involvement is one nobody saw coming. The path to the truth is tortuous and bloody. With consummate skill, Tafoya brings together the myriad connections that show no crime is committed in a vacuum. Here is a cliché-free depiction of merciless urban reality. The characters, whether cops, killers, or victims, are multidimensional. The ending is a fitting homage to the poetry of the street. You’ll be hearing more from Dennis Tafoya for years to come.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.