Written by Charlie Stella — This New York writer has been on my radar for some time. Never quite breaking out, he has however amassed a solid reputation as a writer of hardboiled, streetwise crime fiction over the course of several novels. When Bill Crider and Ken Bruen started raving about his latest book, I thought it was finally time to take the plunge.
The plot is a little complex so let me try to explain. It’s clearly inspired by the case of Whitey Bulger, reputedly a Robin Hood-style organised crime figure from Boston, but at the same time it follows on somewhat from Stella’s first novel, Eddie’s World. Whitey Bulger was a long term FBI informant whose handlers overlooked his ongoing criminal activity because of his usefulness informing on organised crime. He is thought to have murdered 19 people. His former FBI contact is doing eight years for tipping off Bulger about an indictment heading his way. Before capture he evaded the law for 16 years and was ironically on the FBI’s most wanted list for 12 years.
At the end of Eddie’s World, drug dealer James Singleton was shot in the face by New York mobster Eddie Senta. Now in North Dakota as part of a witness relocation program, goes by the name Washington Stewart, and has a mask covering his scarred face. In exchange for information on a couple of mafia bankers working out of Vegas, Special Agent Eugene Morris overlooks Stewart’s frequent petty crimes. What Morris doesn’t understand is the extent and ambition of his criminal career which involves drug dealing and murder. He makes contact with air force doctor Colonel Schmidt who, in return for Stewart killing his cheating wife, is prepared to share half a suitcase of uncut Afghan heroin with him. But before Stewart can throw Morris off his tail, double-cross Schmidt, and get away with over a million dollars, there is the little matter of revenge. And that means Senta has to die.
Stewart decides to send some of his people up to New York, but good talent is hard to find. A botched hit leads to Senta’s wife hiring ex-NYPD cop Alex Pavlik – the man who worked the original Senta/Singleton case years ago – to track him down. Pavlik has a cop’s institutional distrust of the FBI and reaches out to the local police, who themselves are already beginning to investigate reports of heroin coming out of the airbase. Stewart’s plan for freedom and riches may yet have to be put on hold.
Let me say right here that I loved this book. Though complex, the plotlines are deftly managed and everything dovetails towards its satisfying conclusion. Stella has a great ear for dialogue, with the New Yorkers clearly speaking a different vernacular to the Dakotans. What impressed me the most was the characterisation, and the author takes as much care over the story’s victims as he does about the perpetrators. For example, the ending for Stewart’s damaged girlfriend is both heart-rending and believable.
This book reminded me of when I first read Elmore Leonard or George Higgins. He is so good at catching the rhythms of criminal speech that it feels effortless. Other writers might have more hidden meaning to their stories, or might tell us more about the state off 21st century America, but on the basis of Rough Riders, no-one entertains us more.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars