Courtesy of those very nice people at Stark House Press, I have in my hands an advance copy of the new novel by Charlie Stella, purveyor of humour, violence, complex plots and double crosses aplenty. Although this zesty thriller is told in the mob patois we might recognise from the fiction of Richard Price and true-crime books of Nicholas Pileggi as well as the movies by Tarantino and Scorsese, what impresses here is its distinctive mixture of hard-as-nails cynicism with an underlying romantic spirit buried not too deep beneath the surface. Its North Dakota setting is also refreshing (bracing in fact, given the very low temperatures). Rough Riders, Stella’s 8th novel, is the sequel to his 2001 debut, Eddie’s World, and brings us up to date with what’s happened to Eddie Senta, James Singleton and Alex Pavlik in the interim …
“Sorry,” he said, just before he fired two more rounds and killed her.
Although not made explicit until very late in, this novel derives its title from Teddy Roosevelt’s regiment of volunteers – including native Americans and cowboys – who fought during the Spanish-American War. Although this is not a historical novel the allusion is appropriate in that this story of violence does at times approach open warfare amongst the various groups that could at a stretch be defined as ad hoc militias. It is an extremely topical thriller in which a disparate group of men and women come together as their various agendas collide head on. Here’s the blurb:
Ten years have passed and the action has moved from the streets of New York to the prairie state of North Dakota. What happens when a multiple murderer, the mob, a former cop, and the FBI mix it up in the frozen heartland?
Rough Riders begins in kaleidoscopic fashion as we catch up with the activities of various characters from both sides of the legal divide. Alex Pavlik has left the police force but still has nightmares about what happened in the previous book and has gone into the private eye business; Senta is going straight and seems to be making a go of it as a ‘civilian'; James Singleton is still under the witness protection and goes by the pseudonym of ‘Washington Stewart’ and gets by helping the FBI with sting operations. In return they look away from his various criminal enterprises including drug running and prostitution. In the previous book Singleton’s scam went awry and culminated with Senta shooting him in the face, leading to the loss of an eye and a severe facial disfigurement. 10 years later and Singleton still holds a grudge so he sends his confederate Roger Daltry (who, it turns out, has never heard of The Who) with a Dakota native to kill Senta and his wife, but they bungle the job. Eddie is left in a coma and his wife hires Pavlik to find Singleton and stop him, which is tough with the Feds protecting him. Pavlik, who eventually manges to track his prey to North Dakota, leading the FBI to set up a trap for him:
The big man slipped on ice and just missed taking Pavlik’s nose off with a roundhouse right.
The FBI are very much seen as the villains here and there is a very strong, anti-federalist undercurrent – indeed much of the conversation is about the Obama administration and the heavy hand of the various government agencies. Singleton has hatched a plan to get away from the FBI and escape to Mexico by going into business with a Colonel at a local airforce base who has acquired several kilos of heroin imported from Afghanistan. The two plan to sell them and fly by helicopter south of the border. As part of his deal, Singleton kills the Colonel’s unfaithful wife, which is what starts to alert the local police to what is happening, as does the death of a local student from an OD engineered by one of Singleton’s most unpleasant associates. This gets the attention of Dale Hearn and ultimately he teams up with Pavlik and other cops when they all find that the recent spate of deaths in Minot, North Dakota all lead back to Singleton and his scarred girlfriend – and find that they and their families are in jeopardy as a result.
Dale said, “Aim at the chest, hold your breath, and squeeze.”
Singleton/Washington is a fascinating if wholly amoral character and Stella pulls off the difficult trick of conveying the fascination that such a strong and intelligent character can have without glamourising him. He does however get most of the good lines, such as when discussing Ahearn, one of his drug-dealing cronies and a truly unpleasant piece of work:
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Stewart said. “Man that stupid doesn’t deserve to live.”
Stella’ previous novel Johnny Porno (2010) became the first original publication by Stark House Press, a publisher hitherto devoted to re-issuing fiction previously long out of print.The author has a clear understanding of the hardboiled genre’s heritage and the novel is somewhat reminiscent of George V. Higgins in its depiction of low-level criminality as just another way of life and also of Elmore Leonard, using his standard device of having stories revolve around a bag of money that the quirky and profane cast of characters all want to get hold of. There is also a dash of James Ellroy in the complex plot and the disparate group of detectives who ultimately find that their investigations unexpectedly intersect, which is no surprise as these are three of Stella’s favourite authors. However while operating in a similar groove to these established writers, his new mob story succeeds completely on its own merits and builds up a considerable head of steam as it speeds towards its really exciting climax. There are some occasional implausibilities, and Pavlik losing his cell phone at the most inconvenient moment during the climactic car chase is overly contrived perhaps, while maybe the conclusion is a shade to peremptory after such a long and intense build-up – but these are quibbles really and Stella rounds the novel off with a typically slam-bang, in-you-face closing sentence
Although I love the hardboiled genre I would not normally consider a book about gangsters my usual cup of genre java but this is violent and often darkly humorous but plausible story of men and women who are as likely to murder and rape each other as bid them goodmorning, is expertly constructed and never loses its grip. From its admittedly fragmented opening to the ever-shrinking focus of its finale as the body count rises, Mr Stella makes his story supremely compelling and has certainly made me a believer. I very much look forward to reading his next book – in the meantime, chase this one down, it works like a beaut.
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella
(Stark House Press, published 31 July 2012)
255 pages, Price: $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-933586-39-7 (paperback)
Author’s homepage can be found at: http://charliestella.net/
Stella’s blog is available at: http://temporaryknucksline.blogspot.co.uk/
To order copies of the book or to find out more about it, visit: www.starkhousepress.com.