You may have noticed things are different here at OBAAT. With Down & Out Books announcing the October 26th re-launch of both Worst Enemies and Grind Joint, it’s time for the Relentless Self-Promotion Machine™ to get cranked up for another assault on your sensitivities and good taste.
Never heard of either of them? You must be new to the blog. Not wishing to be remiss, this should catch you up.
Penns River is an amalgam of three small towns in Western Pennsylvania where I grew up and still have close family ties. (My parents live in the same house I grew up in, bought in 1960, a couple of weeks before Bill Mazeroski’s home run won the World Series.) My memory of the local economy is a constant stream of mills closing and jobs lost. A lot of people my age—me, for example—left for brighter economic futures.
Pittsburgh recovered to become a hub of medicine, education, and finance. The North Hills and South Hills came back with it. Not so much farther up the Allegheny, where population fell along with the economy. Land that used to be a diary farm, with the easiest access to the expressway that runs into Pittsburgh, is now a relatively affluent bedroom community with homes on two-acre lots. The people who live there neither earn nor spend their money locally.
Worst Enemies spends a lot of time around those houses. Tom Widmer makes good money in Pittsburgh’s financial industry. He and his wife Marian spend it just as fast, if not faster. Neither really wants the other around anymore. This is a murder story. You can see where this leads.
Not two miles away as the crow flies sits what used to be a busy shopping center. Montgomery Ward on one end, J.C. Penny on the other, with a connecting waist of small local businesses. Wards closed in 2003; Penney’s two years later. Nothing replaced them. The city is in constant dispute with the owner and has declared the remaining hulk to be unsafe. The owner refuses to do anything with it, including sell it. The city can’t afford to seize it under eminent domain. It decays a little each year, a monument to failure.
Grind Joint’s focus is here. A real estate developer who missed out on the big money whenthe commonwealth legalized casino gambling in Pittsburgh had taken over the building and renovated it into a low-roller casino; a “grind joint,” in the parlance of the trade. The casino brings problems of its own. The feeder streets lack the capacity to support the traffic, and ancillary businesses spring up around it that draw crime the way clover attracts bees.
You wouldn’t think organized crime would be an issue in such a town. Ordinarily it isn’t. The towns that inspired Penns River were once hotspots of mob activity, with afterhours clubs and pretty much any action anyone could want. The underboss of the Pittsburgh crime family—a national figure in his day—lived there along with his brother and his crew. The leader of what’s left of the Pittsburgh mob still lives in the fictional Penns River and has declared it a crime-free zone as a way to build goodwill in a town where everybody knows who—and what—he is, but the old-timers still remember the good old days when the Mob had an even bigger presence and life was good.
Tasked with maintaining order among these disparate forces are fewer than 40 cops, hindered by a city government in thrall to whatever might bring some money back to town. There aren’t enough of them, most of those who are there didn’t sign on for this kind of duty, and no help is on the horizon.
Those are the stories I hope to tell in Penns River.
The books are available for pre-order now; the formal release date is October 26. Full information on ordering is on each book’s page at the Down & Out web site:
I’ll have more on both books as the date approaches.
(Editor's Note: Thanks are owed to everyone connected with Down & Out Books; they're day is coming. I do want to point out the brilliant cover art provided by the indefatigable and seemingly ubiquitous Eric Beetner. Well done, sir, and thank you.)