By Tom Pitts
Pot is on the verge of becoming legal, but the shady grower business is tighter than ever on the Hill in Humboldt. When dirty cash goes missing, an explosion ignites between a wronged biker gang, a young couple on the run, one old lady grittier than a mouth full of sand, and her long lost friend Vic, the man who knows where the bodies are buried because he’s the one who put them there.
Vic – Everyone’s got that one friend, the guy you call who won’t ask questions because he knows the answers won’t be legal. Vic’s life on the street, his years on the run, have hardened his hide into a shell of unforgiving fortitude.
“I been around these people. They don’t play games, and neither do I.” Vic looked directly at Piper. “I am a very serious man.”
Barbara Bertram – At once both a suburban homebody and a force of nature, Barbara spent the first half of her life stumbling through the unforgiving drug addiction, and the second as a devoted mother to an ungrateful boy. But her past serves her well, as she becomes an willing prisoner in her son’s ill-thought machinations.
Barbara came into the room at full speed, tackling the man who held the child. She ignored the SFPD uniform the man wore and took him down from the midsection.
Jerry & Piper – Jerry spent his childhood under the overprotective care of his mother, but never absorbed her ruthless life lessons. Piper is the surrogate daughter of a gangland leader. The pair of lovers hatch a scheme that leads to a pile of bodies, missing cash, and one hell of a ride.
Jerry reached in his pocket, shook out a Marlboro, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. He blew smoke in the kid’s face.
"That ain’t cool.”
Humboldt County & The Hill – While illegal pot is nearly gone, on The Hill, the old way still rules: force, guns, and attitude. Stealing water is a mortal sin, and the different growers still preside over their fiefdoms like medieval kings.
The fireroad led nowhere, the path covered with thorny raspberry bramble and blocked with a fallen tree. Vic killed the motor and listened to the approaching car … He lifted the Glock 19 from the seat beside him and racked one into the chamber.
It only took a few minutes to make it around the long city block, and when they got to the spot Vlad thought he’d seen the Crown Vic, there was only an empty parking spot.
“See?” Dimitri said. “No cops. Only us gangsters.”
My last foray into Tom Pitts' dark imagination took us through the last vestige of San Francisco’s hard underbelly in Hustle. He’s written quite a bit since then, and his newest book 101 puts on display both how far he's come, and also, how much more there still is to see with this author.
There is no doubt; Pitts’ ability to create colorful, if briefly alive, characters helps him accelerate his plot to breakneck pacing. We quickly get imaginative visuals of minor players that give empathy and depth regardless of their time on the page, be it Mr. Clean the bald and giant pot grower in love with a junkie, or Ripper, the loyal farm hand with double the guts filling out his thick belly. Pitts' Humboldt County is filled with these folks, most of which are just meat for this grinder of a noir tale.
Nestled here, either lost in the brambles of Northern California, or blasting through a biker’s hideout, we find, as we always do, this author’s strengths. Never dipping below a sprint, the sleek, straightforward plot gets out of Pitts' way so he can throw us through the ringer. What this allows too, is for his readers not to question otherwise puzzling gaps (How did Barbara, a weakened, late fifties mom wrestle a baseball bat away from her assailant off-screen?). Since it’s in service of forward momentum, we not only don’t question it, we relish in the damage she’s able to commit with her attitude and weapon.
Most interesting, and for my tastes welcomed, is Barbara’s role as prisoner, murderer, and otherwise bad-ass. Pitts sets us up with a typical hardboiled story: a biker gang is missing cash, a punk couple on the run, a mother kidnapped and in peril, the hard-nosed male protagonist that will save everyone’s hides. But as we run through his imagination, the kids become more useless, and the biker gang less capable, and finally, we find out the kicker, how our older mom is actually the truest, and meanest of them all. I applauded this turn in the book, and reveled in the blood she wrought, both in the climax, and in her long ago past.
My regard for Pitts' storytelling is only inhibited by, what I’ll call, less than diligent self-editing. The same author writes this concise polished line:
“Jer-ree.” She said it like she was considering its fit, whether he should keep on using it or upgrade to another name.
Also creates this somewhat flat explanative paragraph:
He knew bureaucracy demanded as much, but he couldn’t help but believe these ideas boxed in their thinking. Where it was the criminal’s job to think as far outside the box as possible, law enforcement had trained themselves to sit squarely and comfortably inside said box.
Pitts is creative, smart, and gritty as hell. His characters tell us this throughout his many stories, especially this one. For his next work, I hope he slims down his writing as much as his plotlines. Let the action roll, we already understand these mean men and women by their actions; we need less of their inner dialogue. In his next novel, I’m confident Pitts goes from good to great, and that he’ll trust himself as much as we already trust him.
101 is nasty little ride, and one that reads as quickly as the action firing between its covers. We recommend it.
*** Full Disclosure, This Desperate City was sent a reviewers copy of this book. However, we do not post reviews of books we do not enjoy ***
Two junkie hookers with nothing left to lose attempt to frame their biggest client. Unfortunately for them, someone’s already beat them to it and he’s not ready to share.
“Donny and Rich’s lives ground on in a short cycle of copping, getting high, turning tricks, hiding from the world, then getting sick. Their time was marked by hours, not days.”
It’s not that this book is grimy, though it is. It’s not that its violent, or endearing, or bloody, or wrought with the painful reality of the streets, though it is all of these things.
What Hustle has that a lot in the genre don’t is urgency.
And not the noir urgency of a missing character struggling to stay alive in the hands of a speed-freak killer, or the desperate need to obtain that one last treasure that’ll get a man off the streets for good, (although you guessed it, Hustle has these in spades as well).
The urgency in this tale bubbles from the streets itself, and the addictions buried in the people there. At no point in Pitt’s yarn are we more than a few moments away from the desperate and oppressive need of the next hit, just to get us right, just to get us through the next two hours.
That’s reality on the streets and that’s what makes this novel so compelling. Noir/Crime pieces will always (although don’t have to) spin around the dirty folks skirting the fringes of the law. And some have dark histories and others are getting their hands bloody for the first time, but rarely do we see them so pre-occupied with one singular thought, and even more rarely is this thought a true reflection of reality.
Addiction strangles us at every turn, pressing on our windpipe as Big Rich and Donny turn their tricks with dark men in nice cars just to score some cigarette money, as Bear tries to figure out his next move and how far he should go to save the life of a man who saved his, as Dustin tweaks his way through existence.
It never leaves and just when the countdown hits zero, shakes start, the vomiting and the cramps and the pain, so much pain. It’s not hard to get lost in Hustle’s reverence to addiction, and it’s the book’s most endearing quality. Because in the end, we want Big Rich to be reunited with his chick and their kid, we want Donnie to smarten up and stop getting raped. And most of all, we want Bear to relax on the beers and just settle down with a broad who gets him. But we also know that’s not going to happen. The pull is too strong, the claws too deep. It was always going to end this way, we just needed to see it happen to know for sure.
Tom Pitt’s Hustle gets the reader dirty, sure, but it’s the pain of that dirt, that grit, that makes this small slice of street life so real.
Review by JJS
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.