Play it Slow

An Ace and a Pair
Blake Banner

Sometimes the reasons I accomplish less than I set out to slap me right upside my head. There exist any number of things I should be reading. More than a few of them currently occupy one of my disjoint literary spaces: books I’ve begun, books I’m actively reading, books I’ve placed in some sort of geeky limbo.

Often enough I’ve been led astray by the siren song of entertainment. I’m not afraid of the hard stuff. But there’s a reason I stubbornly follow my own path and it’s simply stated: I reserve the right to indulge my streak of pure laziness.

That does not mean I cannot fabricate a rationale for why mere time-spending is actually something more, Take the present case. On the surface, it’s yet another mystery story. I’m here to tell you, though, that it was a free ebook and so provided another data point for my screen-based reading project and provided me an opportunity to road test the use of a free sample in digital publishing.

See, it really is work. Or at least work-related.

Cards have a language of their own

Truth be told, I  did not start perusing without concern. My hard drive contains hundreds, maybe even thousands, of free MP3s and I’d say most of them are not worth the price paid. A book represents a bigger time commitment than a three-minute pop song. I knew at the start I could be in for pure torture.

I’m happy to report that I escaped torment. Blake Banner, a man I know nothing about, may actually be, to use his own words, a guy  who “…get[s] up, write[s] stories, sleep[s], then repeat[s].” I can’t speak to the sustained quality of that assembly-line approach but this first volume in what’s labeled the Dead Cold series offered the diversion from current events  I needed.

John Stone, an NYPD detective, works in the 43rd precinct, an actual station house located in the Soundview section of the Bronx. It’s a tough area, where the folks at the lowest end of the City’s economy are clustered. In such areas, crime is often a profession or at least provides a way to define yourself that sends an unmistakable message. (For a masterful,  scholarly look at such dynamics in a nearby New York neighborhood, see Philippe BourgouisIn Search of Respect.“)

For once, our hero has a home in the real world. The NYPD’s 43rd precinct, in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

Stone is, proudly, even defiantly, a dinosaur. The modern statistics-based approach to crime-fighting holds no allure for him. Like all good sleuth-heroes, he’s driven by a need to figure things out in a way that delivers actual, if not system-approved, justice. As if to advertise his intransigence, he drives a vintage Jaguar complete with right-hand drive.

We’ve seen this before with Spenser, Bosch and even Hiassen characters. I’ve come to believe it’s a requirement of the genre, especially police procedurals. The characters at the heart of these stories are rarely exemplary; they’re just understandably less-bad than the jotting-tittling paper-pushers higher up in the ranks.

Stone has such a boss, Captain Jennifer Cuevas. She wants HQ-approved practice from her squad and, at the outset, she makes it clear to Stone that he really ought to consider retiring. It’s not his performance, mind you. She grants that he has the best arrest record in the station. It’s just that, well, he hasn’t kept up with the latest in policing techniques and technologies. Maybe it would be better to move along and open a spot for a younger detective.

Every crime-fighting hero needs a quirk and nothing says quirk louder than a Jaguar.

Even a police captain can’t force a retirement, though. She can, however, make your life miserable which is why Stone finds himself saddled with the unit’s cold cases and a new partner–Carmen Dehan. Younger than Stone, Dehan in some ways represents the new face of the force. In others, she’s a throwback. In fact, being tossed together with Stone seems part of an attitude adjustment program designed especially for her.

The crime they attack first is a ten-year-old multiple homicide. Nelson Hernandez was a young thug on the rise. Seeing a gap in the illicit marketplace, he’d started to muscle in on turf that was momentarily unclaimed but, since it generated cash, was still of interest to the established crime syndicates. Nelson was playing the Italian and Chinese mobs against a Latino group larger than his. You can believe what you want about stereotyping, in these books, as in life itself, organized crime almost always grows within ethnic groups.

But before he could become a kingpin Nelson showed up dead. And not just dead. Someone or ones turned his regular poker game into an abattoir. Nelson and his four regular players–cousins all–have been methodically slaughtered. The cousins have merely been executed. Nelson has been reduced to a Ken-doll torso and legs, his head and testicles left on the table in a manner clearly meant to send a message.

And so Stone and Dehan start detecting. Almost immediately their first interview, with a retired cop, ends in the murder of their interviewee and the suicide of the assassin. Suddenly, the case isn’t so cold.

Versimilitude. There really is a Shamrock, TX with a Big Vern’s steakhouse.

Our heroes–Dehan quickly proves herself an attitudinal ally with complementary skills–hit the road. They’re in Manhattan, then somewhere in Texas. Back in the Bronx, then off again to Texas, this time to Shamrock, located on what was once Route 66,  finally ending up in California. Somehow, jurisdictional issues present little of the friction one would expect in the real world.

For a guy who claims to write two books a month, the plot has enough twists to satisfy even the most jaded reader of crime fiction. He claims he drinks a lot of coffee. I honestly think he must purchase it by the 50-pound  bag. Let’s just say the twists are intricate enough to make it a highly enjoyable read.

My only complaint is when the details miss. Twice, in different circumstances, the preferred pronunciation for coffee in these parts is mentioned. The second instance is relevant and believable. But in the first, no native would think twice of another local saying cawfee. Similarly, no native ever took I-87 from the Bronx to Brooklyn. We take the Deegan to the BQE. Nor would we take the I-95. I suspect, that in San Francisco, no one takes the I-80 across the Bay Bridge, either. And there’s no possible explanation for the cover art which features the Broklyn Bridge.

None of that, though, spoiled the show.

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