Wallace Stroby should be a household name. He already is in mine. I read his new book and passed it on to my sons, who told their friends to buy their own copies. My younger son, in his late 20s, described Stroby’s latest as “maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read.” Out of the mouths of babes.
COLD SHOT TO THE HEART is only Stroby’s fourth book, so you have plenty of time to catch up on what he has been doing. It’s his second stand-alone, so don’t worry about having to figure out characters, situations, etc. Just start reading and leave time to 1) devour it all in one sitting, while 2) calling friends to read passages to them verbatim. One thing: you won’t stop for ANYTHING during the last 50 pages or so. You’d have better luck stopping your fall off of a cliff in mid-tumble. It has a mesmerizing plot with unforgettable characters, the greatest of which links all of Stroby’s books: north and central New Jersey, a dark and dangerous woman she is, seductive and deadly and irresistible. And no one writes about New Jersey, its environs and characters, like Stroby.
Besides the Garden State, COLD SHOT TO THE HEART is shared by two characters who slowly move toward cross-purposes with each other --- one directly, the other warily. Eddie Santino, known as Eddie the Saint, has just been released from a five-year prison stint. He’s on the wrong side of what the government actuaries refer to as advanced age, a tough guy honed to a rougher edge by incarceration. Having taken a fall for his boss, he figures he is owed, and then some. He is not surprised that the curve of gratitude that he encounters is quite shallow, but is not inclined to take being shortchanged with grace, either. Eddie is looking for an acceptable payback with an eye toward retirement and is not going to color within the lines, other than the ones he draws, as he goes about collecting it.
Meanwhile, a tough and complex woman named Crissa Stone is methodically collecting her own nest egg, for her own purposes, in the only way she knows how. Stone is always in demand as a team player so long as the team sticks to robbery and not murder. Her work is as perfect as can be, even though the payoffs are, predictably, somewhat below expectations. Crissa is motivated to pull off a quick job --- the robbery of an illegal card game with a huge pot --- when her mentor and lover is up for parole and needs to grease the wheels of justice.
The job unexpectedly goes bad, however, when a member of her crew, an otherwise reliable guy, kills one of the players, who happens to have ties to Eddie the Saint’s boss. Suddenly, the crew has Eddie after them, and Eddie senses the potential for a much larger payoff than the one he has been promised. Eddie is a relentless force of nature and is not stopping until he gets what he’s after. And he’s after Crissa, who has things of her own she’s protecting. Events play out roughly and badly, and it’s clear, almost from the very beginning of the book, that no one is going to walk away from things intact, if anyone is able to walk away at all.
Many other authors have played in this territory, and a few have explored it deeply --- Donald Westlake/Richard Stark comes to mind most immediately --- but I don’t think anyone has quite cut to the heart of the cold life of crime like Wallace Stroby does in COLD SHOT TO THE HEART. If you like crime fiction, or dark literature regardless of genre, this book is an indispensable, required read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011