I used to believe that the reason I enjoy crime fiction had to do with a sense of “justice.” The clever detective finds the bad guys and punishment is delivered. The world is a safe place, because the evildoers are incarcerated, killed, or rendered ineffective in some other way. Peace and security return to the community. Recently I’ve had to rethink this self-satisfied view of my reading pleasures. I’ve become enamored of a “bad girl” protagonist, and I want her to succeed -- and continue with her exploits. Her name is Crissa Stone, and she is featured in two novels by Wallace Stroby, last year’s Cold Shot to the Heart and the recently released Kings of Midnight.
Kings of Midnight opens with Crissa operating a front-end loader to steal an entire ATM machine. She maneuvers the heavy equipment to detach the bottom of the machine from its concrete foundation and then works it around until she can tilt it into the back of a pickup truck, to be driven to an isolated barn where she and two companions can remove the money. You go girl! But Crissa is not just a “strong body with a weak mind.” She is the brains behind the heists she pulls. She learns of a target, puts together a crew to do the job, and plans very carefully. Her planning and decision not to get too greedy keep her out of prison. It turns out that this is not the first ATM job this crew has pulled, but she tells them this is the last; the cops will get onto their MO, and start staking out isolated ATMs loaded with money for weekends. It’s too dangerous now. Unfortunately, Crissa’s careful preparation is ruined in this case and others by partners who are greedy, or stupid, or less coldly calculating of the odds and consequences than she.
Crissa’s back story involves her lover and mentor, who is in prison in Texas. He is up for parole, and she has connections who tell her that enough money in the right pockets will grease the wheels for his release. In addition, she has a young daughter who lives with a cousin. The daughter has no idea that the cousin is not her mother. Crissa sends money for support and visits occasionally to view her child from a distance. The dream that makes her human is that she will make one last big score and be able to live a normal life with her man and her child.
So why is she so appealing? We know that she was a “bad girl” even in high school, while her cousin, now her daughter’s caretaker, was a “good girl.” She ran with a bad crowd and found bad men, but apparently she was not from a family of criminals. She hooks up with Wayne, the man now in prison, who teaches her to be a smart criminal and treats her well. But she still lives outside the law, and is an outcast in her family. As cold as she appears in her dealings with the business of stealing, she has a moral code and a heart. She has a friend, an elderly mobster now living in a nursing home at the Jersey shore, for whom she has real affection. He helps her when he can with his connections, those who live by the old code. He also tries to warn her when she is heading for trouble. She tries to avoid killing; when things go wrong on her jobs, despite the best planning, she regrets the deaths but is able to move on, doing what she has to do to distance and protect herself. When we see her alone, we are privy to the thoughts she has about wanting to get out of the life, while at the same time ensuring that no one with a grudge can come after her. She wants to live a normal life, and will do whatever she has to do get there. She doesn’t see any options other than a big score.
I’ve always believed that criminals were stupid, and eventually get caught because of their stupidity. Crissa is far from stupid. She has detailed plans, does her homework, and has backup plans which include alternate identities and money spread out in safe deposit boxes in various cities. Most of the errors that complicate her jobs are caused by others who are too greedy or short-tempered. At times she seems a little like a superwoman on the wrong side of the law, a talented, cold, calculating machine. Then she does something that reveals that she is human, either saving a partner at the risk of her own life or going after the really bad guys (those with no moral code). She makes mistake when she has to react without planning. The two sides of her character, the cold criminal and the feeling woman, and the internal conflict they generate, are what make her so real. Yet she is not the bad girl with a heart of gold; she is looking out for herself and her own. Part of her appeal is that she lets us enjoy the little bit of naughtiness that is in us while she takes the heat.
Wallace Stroby’s first two novels featured a state police officer in New Jersey. His third, Gone ‘Til November was also ostensibly about a law enforcement officer, a female sheriff’s deputy in Florida named Sara Cross. But the character who stood out to me in that book was her antagonist, a middle-aged enforcer named Morgan, sent by the New Jersey mob to find out what went wrong with their Florida drug deal. Morgan is suffering from a terminal illness, and I was disappointed to realize that he would not appear in future books. Stroby has a talent for turning criminals into sympathetic characters while showing us the dirty work they do. Instead of more Morgan, we have Crissa. I was glad to read that there is another book about her in the works; I want more of her “jobs” and I want to know how she resolves her personal life – if she does.
In the interest of full disclosure, Wallace Stroby will be appearing at my book store on May 3. This event gave me the incentive to pull his most recent novels from the ever-growing pile of books I want to read. You can be sure the next one won’t make it to the pile; I’ll want to learn what Crissa is up to as soon as the book touches my hands. Others have written about Stroby’s compelling writing, crisp dialogue, and page-turning plotting. The kudos are all well-deserved. But it’s Crissa who will keep me coming back.