Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya was one of the best debut crime novels last year. Dark and unflinching but not afraid to deal in emotions and intimacy if not hope and redemption. The follow up this year is The Wolves of Fairmount Park. Based off of Tafoya’s refusal to pigeonhole Dope Thief into any one category it was hard to know what to expect from Wolves.
The book opens with two bodies and the feeling that we are firmly in mystery territory. As the identities of these boys are discovered and the people in their lives come on to the page and stay the book casts a wider net and sits more comfortably in crime territory because the solution of the crime isn’t the thing here but instead how all of these people interact and deal with the tragedy. The cast is a large one and Tafoya settles on four main POV characters to anchor the swirling narrative.
In some respects Tafoya takes a page out of what I call the Lynn Kostoff playbook (because what Kostoff did in The Long Fall was so masterful that he gets to have it named after him) by layering in the relationships so that the actions and interactions count.
The tie that binds this book together is that the complex emotional reactions that these people have to the central crime ultimately leading to increasingly messy situations both internal and external. Tafoya isn’t afraid to let his characters get messy and why shouldn’t they given the unexpected tragedy they are now facing. This makes them more interesting and more real.
One of the main story arcs (and what I understand was an initial selling point of the novel) revolves around one of the main POV characters who is a junkie, whose half-brother is a cop, whose nephew was one of the boys who got shot and in whose neighborhood the shooting happened (see what I mean about those relationships). He spends the bulk of the book on the streets of Philly acting like a PI trying to help solve the case on his own. You’ve never met an amateur PI like this before. His intentions are good, and, just like most PI’s, he has access to avenues of information that the police do not. It makes for an interesting commentary on detectives stories as a whole while being one of the more engaging parts of an engaging novel. There was more than once when I wondered if the character was a schizophrenic, while this was never stated explicitly it seemed to be the case in some of his actions. This layer only added to the characters depth.
The bottom line is that Dennis Tafoya took an already existing A game to a new level showing us that he is one to watch and a force to be reckoned with. If you want engaging novels that keep you entertained and thinking long after the covers are closed then Tafoya is your man.