“Dead Even” by Spokane author Frank Zafiro explores the world of his River City crime fiction novels in 15 interconnected short stories.
River City is a fictionalized version of Spokane where some of the names have been changed and the criminals are a little more colorful. River City has Russian gangsters and a small-time Italian Mafioso causing trouble alongside low-rent burglars, inept armed robbers and other distinctly Spokane-style crooks who will seem all too familiar to anyone who follows the local news.
Zafiro came up with an incredibly cool structure for “Dead Even.” The stories are grouped into four sections by character, with an introduction before each section that provides insights into why he likes writing about them and interesting background on the stories.
If the stories are read in the intended order, details start building up into a sort of meta-novel. Plot elements from earlier stories have an impact on things that happen later, and alternate versions of events given from other characters’ perspectives add new layers of meaning to earlier scenes.
For example, the seemingly random death of a character in a Paul Hiero story turns out to be carefully planned. Another story later in the collection that works brilliantly on its own as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-style ironic morality play is made even better by the connection to the earlier tale.
Fans of Zafiro’s police procedural novel “And Every Man Has to Die” will love “Dead Even.” By the time readers get to the Finch and Elias section, many of the characters from that book have either been mentioned or made appearances and Zafiro starts explaining what ruthless crime lord Valeriy Romanov has been up to since 1998. The appropriately named Special Agent Payne of the FBI even shows up being his usual annoying self in the charming whodunit story “The Bastard Mummy.”
Each section also has a different tone. The three Katie MacLeod stories are similar in style to “And Every Man Has to Die.” Two of them are set around Christmas and Zafiro does a great job of being appropriate for the holiday season while writing about a bunch of rough-edged patrol officers dealing with scumbags.
Most of the Finch and Elias stories are more “cozy.” Two of them work together like an episode of Columbo where the crime happens first and the fun comes (mostly) from seeing how they catch the perp. “The Bastard Mummy” gives readers an idea of what a USA show set in Spokane might be like as Detectives Finch and Elias find themselves dealing with a museum caper that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of “Psych” or “White Collar.”
The Paul Hiero stories are relentlessly dark and depressing. At first, it may seem like Zafiro included them mostly for personal reasons… until one gets referenced in the Dominic Bracco section. Suddenly Zafiro’s genius becomes clear (if it wasn’t already).
Bracco is a classic New Jersey gangster. Zafiro compares him to characters from The Sopranos in the last section’s introduction. That gives readers a good idea of what to expect. A story about a boxer who crosses Bracco may remind readers of the movie “Pulp Fiction.” Another Bracco story features two hitters from Kansas City pulling off a daring attack in River City’s courthouse that will seem all too plausible to anybody who spent time around the real building in Spokane.
Anyone who enjoys crime fiction should buy this book. Anyone who enjoys great dialogue, gallows humor or strong female protagonists should buy this book. Anybody who has ever driven through Hillyard should buy this book just to see how many places from Spokane they recognize.
“Dead Even” is available now from Spokane-based publisher Gray Dog Press and as an ebook from Amazon.