I knew I had a problem from the minute the ARC of Wallace Stroby’s Shoot the Woman First (Minotaur Books, December 3 release) landed on my desk. I had been eagerly anticipating this third novel about Crissa Stone for a year and a half, ever since I had devoured the previous two books in the series, Cold Shot to the Heart and Kings of Midnight . An earlier post, “Bad Girl,” describes how I fell for this intelligent, calculating criminal whose outward toughness is leavened with a deep vein of integrity and tenderness. Here it was at last! I knew from experience that this was not a book I would read in short breaks between my job and home responsibilities. “Impossible to put down” is overused in describing fast-paced fiction, but in Stroby’s case it is absolutely true. Thus I had to delay the gratification until I was able to find an entire day when I could ignore everything else. It was a great incentive, comparable only to preparing for a vacation, to get caught up on chores. And the payoff was a day with one of the most intriguing characters in today’s crime fiction.
Shoot the Woman First opens with Crissa and three accomplices “watching a rust-eaten Subaru with half a million dollars in the trunk” on a street in downtown Detroit. The car is the money exchange mechanism used by a drug dealer; Crissa and her buddies are trying to decide if, and how, they can get that money. She has worked with two of the men before, and they have called her in to help because they know she will consider all the risks and angles, and have them covered. With her careful preparation, the job goes off as planned. It’s the aftermath, the splitting of the proceeds, that leads to trouble when one partner gets greedy. Crissa escapes with her share of the money, plus that of Larry Black, an old comrade from other jobs, who dies of wounds from the gun battle.
Up to this point, we have seen Crissa the criminal, plotting, planning, shooting to kill, escaping with the money. Although she doesn’t hesitate to steal from other crooks, she feels an obligation to her friend and partner. Larry had told her he has a young daughter in Florida, and Crissa is determined to get his share of the takings to her. Here is Crissa the honorable thief, taking only what she considers justly hers. But finding Larry’s family and turning over the cash turns out to be more hazardous than the initial robbery. The Detroit drug dealer has hired a crooked ex-cop to retrieve his money, and Larry’s ex-wife has taken up with a disreputable crowd. Crissa could have stayed home (she operates under aliases and forged identities so that she is unlikely to be found); instead, she exposes herself to more vicious thieves than she in order to fulfill a promise to a friend.
My realization that I would be unable to stop reading this book, once started, came not only from the fast-paced plotting, the need to find out what happens next, and the desire to have the formidable but flawed heroine succeed, but from knowing that Stroby’s superb writing, scene-setting and characters would take me into another world, one I would be reluctant to leave until forced to. It’s not a pleasant world, but the reader becomes immersed in the atmosphere until it feels perfectly natural to be rooting for the “better” felons to defeat their totally immoral opponents.
The slum that much of Detroit has become is described with few words, but they are words that create an ambiance of depression and decay. The streets are empty and filled with litter. Once grand office and commercial buildings are vacant. The house where Crissa and her crew plan the theft was once home to a wealthy family. Now, “The hardwood floor was littered with trash. Chunks of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, lathe showing through. A bricked-in fireplace in one wall, a wide staircase that went up into darkness.” The weather is perpetually cold, damp and rainy. When Crissa and Larry were hiding from their pursuers in an abandoned garage, I could feel the chill as if I were with them.
Stroby has a remarkable talent for showing the reader a character’s true nature with just a short, telling scene. We meet Burke, the ex-cop hired by the drug dealer, as he assaults and robs a somewhat naïve young prostitute because he is short of cash. We don’t need to be told he will do anything for money. Larry’s ex-wife stands on a balcony with Crissa discussing how she is going to “get organized” and rubbing the scabs on her arms; we know her life is organized around one thing. We feel Crissa’s heartache for her own daughter, barely mentioned in this book, when she takes Larry’s young daughter out for an afternoon, just doing “mom” things to get her away from her sleazy environment.
Crissa’s own motivations have become more complicated in this third adventure. In the earlier novels, she was attempting to amass enough money to buy the parole of her mentor and lover, Wayne, who is incarcerated in Texas. She dreams of some sort of normal life with Wayne and her daughter, who is in the care of a cousin. Now the parole is not possible, and Crissa has a more than ample financial cushion. In a conversation with an old gangster friend who is now in a nursing home, she claims she continues to take on jobs because her experience has taught her that things can go south quickly, that “work” is not available when you really need it. As the old man advises her that it’s not worth taking risks when she has enough, she denies that she does it for the thrill. But her “I don’t know” responses to some probing questions indicate that even she is not sure if it’s the money or the adrenaline rush that motivates her. She signed on to the job in Detroit despite some reservations about the set-up; was it just to see if she could pull it off?
Wallace Stroby is an admirer of Elmore Leonard, and wrote a touching tribute to Mr. Leonard at the time of his death last August. Stroby’s writing is even more of a tribute to his hero. There are no detailed descriptions of people, places, or things, just the telling behaviors and events. No fancy adjectives or adverbs. No parts the reader wants to skip over. I reread Shoot the Woman First just to try to figure out how Stroby says so much with so few words. The dedication of the book, written before Leonard’s death, reads “For Dutch Leonard, who set the bar so high for the rest of us.” Mr. Stroby has just set that bar a notch higher.