DOPE THIEF by Dennis Tafoya

Book Quote:

“He and Manny had been robbing dealers for about a year. Had been in the life for a long time before that, of course. Stole cars, broke into houses. They had met in Juvie, a place called Lima, out in Delaware County. Taking off dealers wasn’t something you could do if you didn’t know who was who, what to look for. You had to score dope to know dope dealers, or know people who did. Where to go, what to watch for. Manny had been in rehab and knew people who were out copping every day.”

Book Review:

Review by Chuck Barksdale  (MAR 26, 2011)

Dennis Tafoya’s first novel, Dope Thief, published in 2009 is an excellent novel and more emotional  of a book than I thought it would or could be. Ray, a young man of 30 who has spent time in “Juvie” and prison for much of his life, has found a way to get some money with his friend Manny by stealing from independent drug dealers. These mostly small-time dealers are unlikely to seek help from the police or the mob in getting back their money or drugs. Ray and Manny even have the DEA jackets to scare the dealers into submitting to them. This seems like a good deal for Ray and Manny until they find much more money and drugs than they expected from some hick drug dealers working out of a farm in northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, these drug dealers were associated with dealers in Connecticut that were moving into the area that are not too happy about the theft. These men use quick and violent methods to try to get their money and drugs back. This leads to some scary situations for Ray and Manny as they try to avoid these very dangerous and violent men and seek the help of Philadelphia area drug dealers who may not want the Connecticut competition.

This book is told in the third person perspective of Ray that makes it almost seem like a first person novel. Through this perspective, often through flashbacks, we learn of Ray’s guilt over the death of his high school girlfriend Marletta who died in a car accident while Ray is driving. Even though Ray was not at fault, he did not fight his conviction and imprisonment when the girl’s grief-stricken state trooper father framed him. Ray’s inner struggles are the best part of this book especially when he later meets Michelle in a Doylestown book store and struggles with finding the strength to become a better person and develop a meaningful relationship with her.

Ray also struggles in his relationship with his now dying father Bart but is fortunate and definitely appreciates the love and support he has received from Bart’s live in girlfriend Theresa. Theresa, who Ray sometimes calls “Ma” stays to raise Ray after his father is sent to the prison in Chester. Theresa’s positive influence on Ray becomes more evident as Ray struggles with his personal decisions about his future.

Dope Thief is one of the best first novels I have ever read and possibly the best, rivaling my favorites by Michael Connelly (The Black Echo), Steve Hamilton (A Cold Day in Paradise) and William Kent Krueger (Iron Lake). I was surprised to find that Dope Thief missed being nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, or Barry awards for best novel or best first novel in 2010. Dennis was nominated in 2010 by Spinetingler Magazine in the New Voice novel category but lost to The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville.

As I was reading Dope Thief, I was reminded of George Pelecanos’ The Way Home, another excellent book I had read several weeks prior. In both books, a young man struggles to find his way toward a better life, free of crime and drugs. However, Ray of Dope Thief grows up in a much more difficult home with a mother who gives up on him and a father who spends most of the time in jail, while Chris Flynn of The Way Home grows up in a fairly normal middle class home with parents that try to help him to succeed.

Since I’m from the Philadelphia area I was more impressed about the negative aspects of the area that fortunately I have not had to experience. I’ve driven by the prison in Chester where Ray’s father is incarcerated without giving it much thought other than being surprised at how nice it actually looks from the outside (except for the barbed wire…) However, I never had to visit anyone there or had to go visit my own or anyone’s child in a reform school that is just a few miles away. I’ve been very fortunate with my family but Dennis Tafoya in writing The Dope Thief made me realize it even more. Of course, the Delaware County portion of the Philadelphia area (where I have lived all of my life) has many great places and not just the prison, reform schools and drug dealers depicted in this book. Maybe I need to talk to Dennis about these nice parts the next time I see him. They are not so interesting though to a crime novelist I guess. Dennis does portray his own Bucks County much more favorably and I certainly enjoyed reading about the various parts of that area.

I became interested in Dennis Tafoya after seeing him at Noircon in Philadelphia in November, 2010 and then even more so after reading his story, “Above the Imperial” in Philadelphia Noir. I enjoyed the story and actually edited out a discussion of the story in the review to keep it from getting too long. I was certainly expecting to enjoy the book and expected to read about crime, death and the ugly parts of Philadelphia but did not expect the book to be as well written and deep as it is. I’m glad I still have The Wolves of Fairmont Park (2010) to read, and hopefully many more future books.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books; First Edition edition (April 28, 2009)
REVIEWER: Chuck Barksdale
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Philadelphia Noir

The Way Home by George Pelecanos


Found in these collections:

March 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Debut Novel, Mystery/Suspense, Noir

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