The Poor Boy's Game by Dennis Tafoya is a standalone thriller about Frannie, a U.S. Marshal whose violent childhood memories come rushing back when her father escapes from prison (available April 29, 2014).
If you've read Dennis Tafoya, you know that he's a writer who embeds family drama, with its complex emotional turmoil, inside hardboiled crime fiction. The Poor Boy's Game, his third novel, is no exception. It centers around Marshal Frannie Mullen, from Philadelphia, and the consequences that result from two events. The first, in Philly, is a botched attempt by Frannie and her colleagues to catch a felon who has jumped bail. The second is the escape from a Louisiana prison of her father Patrick. He has his own business to take care of in Philadelphia, and the news that he has returned to his old stomping grounds adds stress to Frannie's life. Patrick is a former boxer who was an enforcer for a local roofer's union. He has a violent history. He was also a terrifying husband and father, a man whose brutality traumatized Frannie, her sister, and their mother. While dealing with the fallout from the failed apprehension, Frannie is engulfed by the chaos and danger set off by her father's return, and how these two plot strands develop and come together is at the core of The Poor Boy's Game.
It's a good plot. But in a Dennis Tafoya novel, plot alone is not king. He focuses on character and place as much as he does on plot, and he does it through crystalline language that conveys emotion. Frannie is someone who shows a hard face to the world, but underneath that surface, her emotions can be raw, no surprise considering how her mother died and that her sister Mae has drug problems. Here's Frannie thinking about her troubled family—a passage that encapsulates the intensity and rhythm of Tafoya's prose:
Is that where her mind was that night on Arch Street? Did she lose her focus thinking of her vicious father and her dead mother and lost sister? The night before she'd visited Mae at Sunrise House, watched her twist a tissue to ribbons while she talked about hitting bottom in a motel at the end of the Black Horse Pike, waking up with a knot over her eye and a man she didn't know going through her purse. Frannie had known it was wrong to be distracted in that moment, to have had all that going through her head while they waited for Berman at the store, pulling her out of her work. Something had happened that day, though, some door had opened in her head and all these memories, these terrible pictures of her ruined family drifted across her vision like blue clouds. She remembered that day in the store, turning from the picture and Sleeper looking hard at her from the open doorway, like he knew what she was thinking. But what could she know? She had never talked about any of it to anyone at work. To anyone, really. Believed instead that working hard, keeping her head down, keeping her distance from her family's mess would immunize her. That not being like them, she was no longer of them.
Philadelphia is Tafoya's home turf, and it's obvious he knows the city cold. But he uses more than straight physical description to capture it. Though the novel has a fast pace, Tafoya is not afraid to spend a moment here and there to linger. He's a crime writer with the confidence to allow pauses for reflection. Beauty is captured amid the ugliness occurring, and he delineates the city's sights, smells, sounds, and social gradations. At times while reading, I likened the third person narrative voice to a movie camera showing me the action and bloody details of the plot, then floating away at intervals to pan over streets and around corners. Even while we follow Frannie as she works to protect herself and her sister, as she tries to piece together what is going on around her, we get glimpses of houses, bars, markets, cemeteries, and deserted, weed-filled lots. I love the way Tafoya keeps moving the story forward while having Frannie contemplate her past. As in any family drama, the past forms a key to the present, and Frannie must come to terms with the wounds of her childhood if she is going to grow as an adult. But is coming to grips with your history made that much harder when you're in the very place that shaped you? Frannie has friends who she knew as a kid, and these people help her. But so many areas she passes through prod her memory, and once the floodgates of memory open, they cannot be controlled. The Poor Boy's Game has a ghost-story quality about it, but the haunted house is Philadelphia and the rooms of the house are the different locations Frannie navigates. Not that she's the only one haunted. Over and over characters refer in conversation to the past, how life used to be, and you get the sense that countless people have died in this city with unquiet souls:
That's where the ghosts ought to be in this town. Not in the cemeteries, the tidy forests of marble and granite in Holy Cross and Laurent Hill, but on the street corners in Strawberry Mansion and Frankford and in front of social clubs on North Broad and the Kensington bars with no names where the young men got heads full of Hennessy and cocaine and retired to the street to have their showdowns. Ben Franklin might be buried down on Arch Street somewhere, but the restless dead, the young dead, the murdered ones whose rage and thwarted ambition would make for wrathful spirits, they were out in the empty prairies of Mutter Street and Westmoreland and Somerset. There was no tour for that.
Like any good thriller, The Poor Boy's Game has its share of twists and turns. But Tafoya doesn't go overboard with them. Nothing feels forced. He makes sure that the plot is propelled by the characters' needs, choices and reactions to others' choices. At every step along the way, he describes people with strongly defined motivations, and not once did I find myself asking, “Why did that happen?” or ”Why did this person do that?" Of course, motivations aren't simple; they're often complex and sometimes uncertain to the characters themselves. But when a character in the story is confused, Tafoya makes us see that confusion clearly. We come to understand what makes every person in the novel tick, and when each character in a book has such a distinct personality, you can't help but have an absorbing tableau. We track complicated people interacting under pressure, making smart or imperfect decisions, grappling with their internal demons as much as they grapple with each other.
One last thing I have to mention. For all his skill with character and mood, Dennis Tafoya is great at action. The book opens with a shoot-out, and Frannie later is involved in more than one scene of sudden, convulsive violence. The scenes occur right out on the street, with cars and vans for cover. Law enforcement people are involved, street thugs, civilians who never use weapons. Each of these scenes is gripping and scary, as we perceive things from Frannie’s point of view, but what also strikes the reader is the cool rendering. The controlled prose describes the tumult with utter clarity. As bullets fly and people dart from spot to spot, the reader knows exactly what is going on, who is involved, and where people are positioned in relation to each other:
...Tina screamed again, and Wyatt threw himself over her and whispered something that Frannie couldn't catch as she pivoted, trying to cover the truck for whoever had held the gun on the driver.
Now there was a roar and a squeal of tires as another car shot down Levick Street and came to a hard stop just behind the van, a beat-up LTD that Frannie thought had to be thirty years old, the undercarriage pink with rust. It was still rocking on its suspension when the side doors opened and two men stepped out one on the far side of the Ford carrying a shotgun and the near man holding a blocky semiautomatic pistol. She shifted the front sight of the Glock and shot the one with the pistol as he raised it and then again as he staggered. He dropped the pistol and slid down the long door to his knees, empty hands grasping weakly at the slick green metal. She forced herself to move forward, trying to get a clear shot at the man with the shotgun, but he pulled his head down behind the far side of the LTD and disappeared. She looked again at the man down on the street and saw his face change and change again, his large, black eyebrows knitted with concentration as he struggled to understand what had happened to him.
Eventually the dust will clear, and questions in the story will be resolved. But after all the damage inflicted, will there be anything for the survivors to look forward to? Throughout The Poor Boy’s Game, we see images of broken families and the men, in particular, who wreck those families. Is a functioning healthy family even possible? Tafoya leaves us with a picture that suggests it might be, but it will take solidarity from unexpected sources. Adaptability will be needed, and fighting spirit also. That family will have a chance to work, but it might not have a configuration anyone can predict.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.