Cheapskates is Charlie Stella’s fourth novel. I want to say it’s his best, but my opinion of which of his books is best is closely tied to which one I’ve read most recently. They all have multi-dimensional, tight plotting and fly-on-the-wall dialog. The characters are all bent to some degree, each in his or her own way, even when they’re legit. That’s not the same as saying all the books are the same, except when comparing relative quality.
Peter Rizzo and Reese Waters are friends in Fishkill Penitentiary, scheduled for release on the same day. The two got tight when Peter protected Reese during a gang fight and was shanked for his trouble. Neither is a hard-core criminal—it can be argued whether they’re criminals at all. Now they’re about to get out and Peter has developed an unhealthy obsession with fifty thousand dollars his ex-wife cheated him out of. He doesn’t want revenge or violence. He just wants his money.
Unknown to Peter, Janice, his ex, has taken up with Jimmy Valentine, consiglieri to the Vigneiri crime family. Janice knows every fold and crease of every bill that’s ever passed through her hands. There’s no way she’s giving up fifty large. She has plans for Peter when he gets out.
Stella has a gift for knowing exactly how much writing to do. The story and characters are plenty to maintain interest. The players are who they are, helped—or done in—by their own traits. No one’s stupid. No one is as smart as they think they are, either. Things are in play only the reader is fully aware of. The characters react to the bits they know, filtered through their personal strengths and weaknesses. The climactic scene, told from multiple, overlapping points of view, is virtuoso writing, as it needs to be to keep all the balls in the air.
The key to telling a story well is to make as much of it as the characters do. I recently read a review of the movie 42 that identified the problem with most biopics as the characters speak and act as if they know a movie is being made and they need to make sure everyone gets the import of what is going on. Good point. People rarely know where their comments and daily actions stand in the context of history. A Brazilian friend of mine who had never seen a baseball game before was ecstatic over the pre-game warm-ups; “they never drop the ball!” To me, meh. I can catch. What’s the big deal?
To a fiction writer, this means not to overemphasize comments or emotions the character isn’t likely to think much about in the moment. A housewife talking about the best way to boil an egg so the shell doesn’t stick may make an instructional point; she’s not going to get moist about it. If the characters tend to be cops or criminals, violence and harsh language are likely to be all in a day’s work. Write it that way. Purple prose is not required to describe a hit man putting three in some poor jerk’s chest. The hit man doesn’t feel any emotion; the victim doesn’t have time. There’s no need to drag it out, and over-the-top writing would only gild the lily. A man was killed. For money. Any reader who can’t pick up on the inhumanity without being told how to feel has problems we can’t address in a blog.
Stella’s solution is simple: trust the reader.
..It was a navy blue Chrysler. An old man with gray hair was driving. He motioned at [ ]to come closer as he held up a piece of paper.
“You know where this address is?” the driver asked. He was holding the paper awkwardly with his left hand.
[ ] froze where he stood, about five yards from the driver’s door, but it was already too late. The driver braced the silencer against his left elbow to steady his aim. He fired three times in quick succession. All three bullets found their mark.
[ ] barely heard the phutlike sound. His eyes opened slightly between the first and second shots. He was already dead on his feet before the third one exploded through his chest.
(Yeah, like I was going to tell you who this is getting clipped. )
That’s it. A man is gone. The killer doesn’t feel much different from the victim, who doesn’t feel anything. You can feel however you want. You’ve been told what happened, and how. That’s everything you need.
Cheapskates is also laugh out loud funny at times. Janice’s father is a construction millionaire who lives on out-of-date pastries. The banter between the cops is always spot on, and there is a lot to smile at done by people who would see you laughing and say, “What?”
It’s hard to pick one best thing about Cheapskates. Good thing you don’t have to. Read it all.
(Full disclosure: Charlie Stella and I are good friends. To say he has been encouraging and supportive of my writing is like saying Warren Buffett makes a nice living.)