Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Kind Words starts with pro thief Terrier Rand returning to Long Island after five years living off the grid out west. He originally ditched after his girlfriend’s miscarriage and his brother’s incarceration for a killing spree that left eight dead, but now his brother has called him home to ask for help. Just weeks away from his execution, Collie Rand (the whole Rand family is named after dog breeds) tells his brother that the teenage girl he was said to have killed on that dark night was not offed by him, and that there have been similar-looking girls murdered in his five years on death row. Though it won’t save him from lethal injection, Collie’s counting on his brother to use his “creeping” skills to find out who killed Becky Clarke and put things right, or at least as right as possible in the wake of such a huge tragedy.
Though a dark mystery about a thief trying to clear his brother’s name of one killing on a list of eight sounds like a good enough story to me, the fact that it’s a Tom Piccirilli novel (he of the excellent Shadow Season and Every Shallow Cut) should tell you that The Last Kind Words is so much more than such a simple description expresses. Yeah, there’s a killer on the loose and some woman-stranglin’ psycho needs to be made good n’ dead by our hero, but the real meat of the tale lies in Terrier’s many familial worries.
You see, the Rands are all thieves. There’s his seemingly retired old man Pinsch(er), his scary uncle Mal(amute), his ladies’ man uncle Grey(hound), his Alzheimer’s afflicted grandfather Shep(herd) and his kid sister (Aire)Dale who has yet to take up the family business. (His mother isn’t on the grift in the slightest, just loves and worries about her crooked little family. She also, you know, doesn’t have a dog name.) Shep is well-along into his dementia and the generation just below him seems to be on their way there shortly, but in the present Terrier is more worried about succumbing to “the underneath” like his brother did, Terrier feeling like randomly going mad dog (so to speak) may be as much a part of his blood as his ability to lift a wallet.
While he’s back under the same roof as all these characters (the walls stacked with who knows how much loot and cash), he takes on a lot of responsibilities peripheral to his promise to Collie. He’s gotta keep a local gangster from killing his uncle Mal following the forty large he cheated off the house at the hood’s weekly high-stakes card game, save his sister from the shithead wannabe armed robber she’s dating, and talk his ex’s new husband (and his former best friend) out of making a mistake that could cost him the family Terrier wishes he had today. Dude’s got a lot on his plate, and we’ve got one hell of a story on our hands.
Piccirilli has created a fascinating world that’s cast with tons of strong characters, all of it related through stark prose and kept lively thanks to endless tension. When I reached the end I wanted to read a whole other book about these people and this world. Once you’ve breezed through The Last Kind Words I’d call bullshit on you if you said you felt any differently yourself, dear reader.