Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Grind Joint, by Dana King

Although this is a picture of an ARC, the
book is out and available.
Regular readers here, if any such there be, are probably aware by now that my taste in mysteries and crime fiction run a pretty wide gamut, so if recent posts on books like Mist Over the Saltings or Buried for Pleasure lead you to think that I only read mysteries more toward the cozy end of the spectrum, you stand forewarned. Grind Joint is a book for people who like The Wire, if The Wire was transferred to western Pennsylvania.

If, like me, you're not a gambler, you may not know what a grind joint is. Although you will deduce it easily enough as you read, the Urban Dictionary in fact provides a perfect description of the grind joint that comes into play in this novel:

"a low-end, seedy casino that caters to the nickel slot clientele."

The actual grind joint of the title doesn't come much into play in this story--it's the dynamics set up by its presence that set the plot in motion. As the story opens, a nickel slot establishment which has become the great hope for an all but abandoned shopping mall is just about ready for its grand opening when the guy who opens up the building for the work crews finds a bag of garbage in front of the door. It's typical of the technique of this book that even though Kenny Czerniak is a somewhat incidental character in the story, we discover that he was once a master machinist and that he's doing what's essentially custodial work because it's the only job he can get in this depressed economy. His relations to his boss are such that he tries to lie about the time in a murder investigation, because his boss has said he'll sack him if he's late again.

Because of course the bag of garbage turns out to be a body, and why this particular body has been left at the door of this particular casino fuels the rest of the story.

Grind Joint isn't a long book, and its chapters are short. Nevertheless, it took me awhile to finish it, because there is quite a bit packed into this slim volume. There's a large cast of characters representing the rich immigrant community here, and there are also quite a lot of criminal factions with which to become acquainted. A remnant of the old Italian mafia is hanging on, but the Russian gangsters seem to be on the upswing, and you don't want to count the African-American drug dealers from Pittsburgh quite out of the picture. What's clear is that Penn River, a fictional community base on several outside of Pittsburgh, is in a weakened position after the closing of the mills and, without its former economic base, is ripe for predators and scavengers.

Ben "Doc" Dougherty is the lead investigator into this crime and if on one level he's a small town guy, he's also a small town guy who's been in the military police and seen some things he probably wishes he could erase from memory. Doc is our guide to how the power structure really works in Penn River, and it's through his point of view that we most often learn what is possible in the realm of criminal apprehension and what is not.

Although in many ways this is what you could call a guy's book, it's mainly because almost all of the active characters are men. When women do come into the picture, they tend to be treated sympathetically, which is not always true for books with such a masculine angle. Of course, a lot of the characters are criminals, and god knows what they get into in their spare time, but when it comes to the good guys, their attitude toward women could largely be summarized under the rubric 'rueful'. Although this may seem like a lack of the story, in fact it's rather refreshing to come across a story in this part of the crime writing world that doesn't regard the objectification of every female character as de rigueur. 

My only real regret in reading this novel is that it only gradually donned on me that there is a previous Penn River novel called Worst Enemies, featuring many of the same cast of characters. It doesn't really matter for the purposes of reading this novel itself, as anything you might need to know is explained, but if you are going to read Worst Enemies, which if you're like me, you well may want to, it is probably advisable to read it first.

I have, however, read King's standalone, Wild Bill, and if you would like to read a review of that, please go HERE.


  1. You made my day. Not just because you liked the book, but because you "get" it. I wrote it hoping to make exactly the points you noted. Many thanks for letting me know.

  2. I'm glad to know I understood your intentions with it, Dana. And glad to have written a review of it, as it made me think a bit more about what I'd gotten out of it. By the way, I loved the way you ended it the novel.

  3. Belatedly, I have discovered your blog (correction: one of your several blogs), which I should have discovered long ago since we have "met" previously at PR's Detectives Beyond Borders. I am now adding you to my new blog's list of blogs that I visit.

  4. Postscript: Dana . . . I have not forgotten about reading and reviewing your book. But a few of life's ups-and-downs (mostly downs) have knocked me off my game-plan. I hope to fulfill the promise made to you.

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  6. RT, I saw your announcement of your more mystery oriented blog over at Peter's place and even checked out your review. Didn't comment because I haven't read that one yet or know much about the author. However, "Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life" is a title that is bound to appeal to me, because we had a very old recording, probably a 78 of my grandfather singing the old song in his sweet, reedy voice. He had taken some singing class and they made it for him.

    I'll put you in the blog roll here as well, but meanwhile for anyone reading here, RTs recently launched mystery blog is HERE

  7. Thank you, Seana. 'Tis indeed a grand old song. It suddenly occurred to me this morning that it was a great name for a mystery-oriented blog. Take care. Keep in touch. I'll be posting reviews every couple of days at ASMOL.