Friday, January 15, 2010

Best crime fiction of 2009

January Magazine's contributors found so many quality crime novels from 2009 that it published a two-part "best of list. One debut novel to make the grade:
Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur) 304 pages

So many among the new breed of noir writers seem to have been weaned on pulp fiction cartoons and second-rate Jim Thompson-like fireworks, that’s it’s a real rush to discover newcomer Dennis Tafoya pays as much attention to character as he does to mayhem and glib nihilism. Not that his fierce debut, Dope Thief, is all Dr. Phil or anything, but Tafoya’s idea of action aims higher than a few “cool scenes” and some penny-ante existentialism. In these pages, loser buddies Ray and Manny pose as agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to rip off Philadelphia dealers even lower on the evolutionary scale than they are for their stash and cash. At first, it seems like a sweet gig, but Ray knows better: “It couldn’t go on forever ... Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.” And sure enough, it’s not long before these two criminal masterminds inadvertently rip off someone smarter and far more deadly than they are: members of a ruthless biker gang who want more than just their pound of flesh. Forced to flee, the two friends split up, and the story takes a deliciously wicked hop, becoming a brooding, character-driven study with a peculiarly philosophical bent, as 30-something Ray tries to make sense of both a raw, hard-scraped world of “fucked-up people” and his own wasted life. Yeah, there’s a girl, and enough of the sort of rough, brutal nastiness you’d expect; but the real pleasure in Dope Thief lies in Tafoya’s willingness to dig into the lies and sorry justifications that Ray -- and by extension, all of us -- tell ourselves. Anyone can write about a character pulling the trigger, but it takes real chops to make us care not just about where the bullet’s going but about the man who’s holding the gun. Fans of the young man blues, as played by Richard Price or George Pelecanos, take heed -- there’s a new kid in town.
--Kevin Burton Smith
Read about the other novels from Part One and Part Two of January Magazine's best crime fiction of 2009.

The Page 69 Test: Dope Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue