In music, I like bands and singers who explore not only different themes and styles, but also try different sounds and voices. Same with writers. As some of them will tell you, everything has been said already, you just need to take a new approach, keep things fresh, and tell your story honestly.
After four books in his Toronto series, John McFetridge decided to take his show on the road. Sort of. In Tumblin’ Dice the story centers on a band from the 70s called The High. They make a comeback tour playing gigs in casinos where money can be made in more ways than one. The band want to get their fair share, especially singer Cliff and drummer Barry who feel they’re owed money by the band’s former manager Frank Kloss.
He’s now the entertainment manager at a casino where the band are playing and while it would seem a good opportunity to recoup the cash, Kloss has bigger fish to fry. A war is going on in the criminal underworld. The Saints of Hell, a gang of bikers, is plotting against mobsters from Philadelphia for the right to run the casinos. Sex, drugs and rock n roll abound, and so do the dead bodies.
Meanwhile Ritchie, The High’s lyricist and lead guitarist, gets reacquainted with former lover Angie, who happens to be working for Kloss. There’s a large cast of cops, detectives and special agents from Canada and the US who are working together, exchanging info and interrogating murder suspects. They’re trying to make sense of the events unfolding in and around the casinos, especially the case of Boner, a guy who seems to kill the wrong person every time. Then there’s the suspicious death of Amaal Khan, a teenage girl who might have been the victim of an honour killing.
All the additional plotlines could have slowed down the pace of the main story but I found instead they added depth to the novel, giving it more juice. If you’ve read John McFetridge before, you’ll fall right back in and enjoy following the familiar faces and places. Straight away you’ll probably notice the new rhythm. McFetridge has decided to go with a simpler, less detailed narration, giving it a clipped tone not unlike a musical beat. It’s definitely catchy – like a good rock song, with a touch of the blues.
For those who haven’t read him before, I’d say his style would appeal to readers of Willy Vlautin or Richard Lange for the character-driven narration, and of George Pelecanos for the depictions of police work. Tumblin’ Dice is as good a place to start reading the series as any other book.
In the world he presents, McFetridge never makes the mistake of judging the characters. He shows you who they are and what they do as an observer would without taking sides. He possesses a good eye and ear for the world around him and he conjures it convincingly, as much in the way people think and talk as in the way they behave. McFetridge is Canada’s best kept crime fiction secret, and we think it’s a good time for the rest of the world to take notice.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars