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by Dennis Tafoya
Minotaur Books, May 2009
291 pages
ISBN: 031253115X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Ray and Manny first met when they were juveniles in prison almost twenty years earlier. They certainly learned a lot from that experience. Now they are running one of the best schemes ever, raiding drug dealers. Flashing fake badges and wearing surplus DEA jackets, Manny and Ray make quick work of most dealers. They just grab the drugs and cash with a minimum of violence. It's a very lucrative deal.

But it's only a matter of time before one of these grabs is going to go wrong in a big way. They've taken on a third man for this job, and he's a little bit too jumpy. As a result, some people end up hurt or dead. Ray and Manny score big on this one, hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is way beyond anything they've ever hauled in before. As you can imagine, the people behind this operation want their money back; and Ray and Manny are soon the targets of these drug kingpins.

Long before this job, Ray had been awakening to the fact that this wasn't the kind of life that was going to lead him to long term happiness. He's obsessed with the past, and most especially with his relationship with the only woman he ever loved, who perished in a car crash for which Ray blames himself. How he manages to work through his present precarious situation and redeem himself is a riveting tale. Essentially, he is a good man who has taken the path of least resistance. In so doing, he's cheated himself and the people he cares about.

The book seems at first to be following the standard noir pattern, with lives spiraling out of control amidst increasing darkness—ho-hum—but all along the way, you sense that something different is going to happen. Even though he willingly participates in the various schemes, Ray starts showing signs that he views the life he is leading as being an exercise in futility. Where DOPE THIEF really excels is in the last third of the book, as Ray begins a redemptive journey. It is how Ray deals with his own awareness that makes the book something special. Great characterization and solid plotting along with lots of action and heart resulted in a very satisfying reading experience. The only issue I had was with Tafoya's habit of inserting lengthy flashbacks to the past in italic text, something I find hard to read in long passages.

DOPE THIEF is an outstanding debut. Tafoya has gone beyond the noir formula to create a book where despair and hope are intertwined and the reader becomes as emotionally conflicted as the characters. I fully expect to see this on many nomination lists as best first novel. It deserves to win.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, June 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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