By Bruce Jacobs

“Cold Shot to the Heart”
By Wallace Stroby
St. Martin’s Press ($24.99, 289 pp.)

The biggest Mafia bust in New York history filled the headlines last month. Of the 127 bad guys cuffed, not just a few came from across the border in New Jersey. What I know about the Jersey mob comes only slightly from an occasional Sopranos show or the back story to a Springsteen song…but mostly from the crisp crime fiction of Wallace Stroby.

His new novel, “Cold Shot to the Heart,” pits the aging capo Santino “Tino” Conte and his hapless son, lazy son-in-law, and most dramatically, his occasional “fixer” and hit-man Eddie “The Saint” Santiago against the careful and calculating thief Crissa Stone. If you like this sort of fast action, cool character, high drama fiction, nobody is doing it better these days than Stroby.

And I mean nobody – not Elmore Leonard, whose latest is a slight comic caper in Djibouti, nor even George Pelecanos, whose Washington D.C. street criminals never get past their small-time heists and bad luck. Stroby rules New Jersey crime. A master of the catchy title (e.g., “The Barbed-wire Kiss”), he now has four books on bookstore shelves – each with its own stage full of unique characters instead of the more prevalent single protagonist series of other crime writers.

Two-Bit Capers Not Enough

“Cold Shot” opens with Crissa and her ad hoc team of two pulling a check-cashing storefront job in Pittsburgh. Their take is only a third of what their informant claimed. As Crissa fights a snow storm driving back to her small apartment on New York City’s upper west side, she is angry that her $30,000 share is hardly worth her risks and expenses. She needs a bigger score to cover the cost of Texas lawyers trying to accelerate the parole of her crime mentor and closest friend from a sentence too long for him to outlive. Fortunately her connection finds another high stakes private poker job for her in Florida. She rounds up a new team of two, grabs papers and credit cards for a new alias, picks up a .38 with the serial number acid-wiped, and heads south.

The Florida job goes south too. The pot is only half the $1 million expected, and one of her team gets jumpy and kills a player at the table. As her other partner Chance says, “Some things are just fucked from the start. It’s fate. All the planning in the world can’t make them come out right.” The dead player turns out to be Tino’s son-in-law Lou whom he sent to Florida to watch over the family interests. Although Lou is no big loss, family is family and Tino sends Eddie to take down the shooter with the promise he can keep whatever money he finds.

Eddie, fresh out of a five year stint in the Rahway Prison, is happy to oblige. He is determined to put together enough cash to disappear from Jersey forever; and not more than a day after getting out, he has already killed and robbed his first victim. Eddie is cold. He tells his young, more sensitive sidekick and protégé who picked him up from prison, “Sometimes, when you get hard with people, you have to finish it right there, whether they deserve it or not. Because there’s always the chance they’ll come back at you somewhere down the road.”

Killer vs. Thief

Crissa, the professional thief, is on a path of inevitable collision with Eddie, the professional killer. She has a heart. She sends money to her sister in their Texas hometown who is raising her daughter for now to protect her from “the life.” She’s determined to get her man, Wayne, out of prison. She is ready to settle down and buy a cozy Connecticut farmhouse. Just a few more big scores and she can put it all together. Wayne advises otherwise: “Cut your losses. Walk away. Ain’t nothing in this world getting any younger. Me included.”

Eddie’s got nothing to lose. He kills and tortures one after another of those who can locate Crissa. When he finally he catches up to her, he doesn’t waffle. “Way I see it, there’s an easy way and a hard way…Easy way is to get all the cash together and give it to me, then walk away. We do it the hard way, I’m not responsible for the consequences…Your buddy Hector held out for a while, loyalty and all that, but he wouldn’t shut up near the end. You’d be surprised what people tell you if they think there’s even the slightest chance you’ll let them live.” Clearly, one of them isn’t going to make it out alive.

Stroby, a Rutgers grad and former editor at the Newark Star-Ledger, knows New Jersey. From its beaches and famous shores to the dimly lit warehouse alleys of crime-ridden smokestack cities, his books explore this maligned state which looks longingly across the water on its north to New York City and its south to Philadelphia. If you think Leonard’s Detroit or Pelecanos’s Washington beat down their poor and dispossessed, spend a little time in Stroby’s New Jersey…tough place, tough people, not many ways out.

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