Written by Tom Pitts — Tom Pitts is a new author based in San Francisco, and has had several short stories published online and in print. However, Piggyback is his first published novella. When I saw it was being compared to two of my favourite books, Christopher Cook’s Robbers and Don Winslow’s Savages, it was enough to pique my interest.
The plot is pretty simple. Two young women, Betty and Shelly, have been working pretty steadily for a while as drug mules, ferrying pot across Northern California. They’ve never carried anything stronger, but their boss Paul thinks they would be the perfect couple to piggyback some grade A cocaine for the ruthless Mexican baron Jose. Five bricks of cocaine are hidden in the weed. The marijuana piggybacks the stronger substance, if you will, and the girls aren’t told about the real nature of their cargo.
The problems start when Betty and Shelley go off the radar. Paul knows that whilst the pot might be written off as a cost of doing business, there’s no way Jose will let him off for the coke. There is also no way he can repay the debt, and he wouldn’t have the first idea how to find the girls, so he goes begging to Jimmy. Jimmy also works for Jose, but that’s where the similarities end. Jimmy is all business and unlike the coke- and booze-addled Paul he doesn’t touch the product. He has earned a reputation for violence. Together the two men begin the hunt, a chase that will take them across Northern California and involve the girls’ boyfriends and parents. Meanwhile Jose has got wind of events and sends his own players into the mix.
There is a lot to enjoy here. Pitts isn’t afraid to get dark – indeed, he piles on the violence and plenty of characters don’t make it to the end. What’s more, the ones who survive aren’t necessarily those I expected to, so there are some pretty brave choices being made by the author. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Jimmy, and Pitts does a good job of describing a guy who has begun to loathe what he’s become and isn’t sure if he should fear or welcome the end. The hardboiled characters and dialogue brought to mind George Higgins. However, I would have liked it if he’d developed Betty and Shelley a bit more. At times they felt more like ciphers designed to provide a plot rather than well-rounded characters.
At a little over 100 pages, it’s difficult to compare this novella to a proven classic like Robbers, but it is well-written, brutal and fast-paced. And I think that’s what the author intended. I’m glad I took a punt on Piggyback and look forward to whatever he writes next.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars