Charlie Stella,
Rough Riders
(Stark House, 2012)

Charlie Stella must be getting tired of being compared to Elmore Leonard, but he can't escape it. Every time he publishes a book, reviewers bring out the comparisons. I'm afraid the comparison is apt -- Stella is a master of hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, but absolutely realistic dialogue, and his lawmen and criminals occupy the same world with the same values, so it is hard to tell one from the other. His world is completely convincing, and it is one you want to visit from a distance; there's a whole lot of pleasure in visiting it on the page, but I'm not sure we'd want to be in it as a real place. It is brutal and rough, a place where every decision is life or death.

Rough Riders is a sequel, written 10 years later, to his first novel, Eddie's World. In this one, Washington Stewart, who used to be James Singleton before he made a deal with the FBI and entered the witness protection program, has continued his life of crime. Now, he is called on by his handlers to help bring in a heroin connection bringing a huge load of drugs through North Dakota. Stewart, though, has plans of his own, which involve moving a huge load of Afghani heroin and relocating to Mexico.

Stewart also has to deal with Eddie Senta, a New York detective, who back in the old days shot out Stewart's eye, leaving him horribly disfigured. Stella assembles Senta, Stewart, the FBI handlers, local cops, several local drug dealers and junkies, and a former Miss North Dakota all in the frozen tundra of North Dakota, where they all engage in a dance with death -- all in a book that is funny, suspenseful and audacious.

With Rough Riders, every time you think you've got a handle on where it's going, Stella throws you a curve ball. Characters you think are going to play a major part in the climactic moments in the novel get suddenly dead, and characters you think are hopelessly evil turn out to have a soft and sentimental parts to them.

This one is a thrill ride. You'd be doing well to climb aboard and ride.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

6 October 2012

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