Charlie Stella made his bones writing mob stories. Now he’s the pre-eminent organized crime fiction writer in the country. No one gets inside the heads of low-level hoods better than Stella. Made guys were never his primary interest. He focused on the entry-level crooks who didn’t have both feet in the game and were still looking for viable options in their lives, or someone who took a gig because he needed the money and had no intention of being a criminal, just because he worked for some.
He expands his envelope a little in his newest novel, Rough Riders. Ten years after 2001’s Eddie’s World, Eddie Senta has gone on with his life, and James Singleton--the man who almost killed him and was in turn disfigured by Senta—has gone on to a new identity, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. Singleton—now known as Washington Stewart—now works for the government, in his way, setting up other potential candidates for WitSec, while pursuing an agenda of his own, sort of a black Sammy Gravano in North Dakota instead of Arizona.
Singleton/Stewart can’t forgive Senta for shooting him though the eye and almost killing him. His disfigurement leaves him too obvious to kill Senta himself, so he sends a couple of lackeys, who do half-assed job, leaving both Senta and his wife in the hospital, but alive. Mrs. Senta hires Alex Pavlik, one of the cops involved in the original incident, now working as a private investigator, to find Singleton and let the Sentas sleep with both eyes closed.
Pavlik tracks one of the would-be killers to North Dakota, where he learns Singleton is in the area, likely under government protection, which will hinder anything he tries to do. He also finds himself at the confluence of several crime enterprises operating around the Air Force base in Minot, at least one of which involves Singleton/Stewart.
Rough Riders resembles Mafiya, Stella’s look at the Russian mob, more than most of the rest of his books. Multiple points of view keep the reader better informed than any single character and do an excellent job of foreshadowing trouble without being heavy-handed about it. No amateurish, “If only he knew what Joe Schlabotnik had planned” bullshit here. The reader knows what Schlabotnik has planned, and we know our hero doesn’t know. There’s no need for Stella to spell it out, and he trusts his readers enough not to try.
As always in Stella’s writing, the dialog stands out among many strengths. No one this side of Elmore Leonard captures the flow of conversations better, though it may take a few pages to accustom yourself to the cadences of his characters’ speech. That’s more an indication of the failings of other writers than a fault of Stella’s, as too many are afraid to veer too far from “writing” when they write dialog, so their characters’ spoken words too closely resemble the surrounding narrative. Readers fall into the trap and expect it from everything they read. There’s no question who’s talking in Rough Riders, not even when the dialog moves back and forth rapid fire without attribution.
Rough Riders is the most complicated of Stella’s stories, and it takes some concentration to keep straight who is doing what to whom early on. Hang in there. Everything falls together, leading to a climax dispersed along several fronts, switching points of view every page or so to show simultaneous actions from multiple perspectives with a dexterity Leonard would be proud of. It’s a little different from Stella’s usual fare, but a welcome addition to his output. (If you’re looking for a more standard entry point into his oeuvre, try Shakedown or Johnny Porno.) Stella has been around, and is still willing to try out new things and stretch himself, as is shown by his enrollment in an MFA program in his fifties. Let’s hope he still dips his toe into the crime fiction pool at least once in a while. He’s a good one.