It’s easy to find people raving about Dennis Tafoya’s novels.
Megan Abbott, the Edgar Award-winning author of DARE ME, said this about his latest: “With THE POOR BOY’S GAME, Tafoya shows us he ranks with George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, illuminating the grimmest corners of his city, and telling tales filled with both darkness and immense beauty.”
His previous novel, THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly (which also mentioned Lehane as a comparison) and Booklist called it a “gritty, insightful crime novel” that “cements his position as an up-and-coming hard-boiled writer.”
His debut, DOPE THIEF, was called “raw and redemptive” by PW, while Booklist said “the action has a hard, violent edge that recalls Richard Price.”
It’s all true, every word.
Dennis is also an accomplished short story writer. “Satan’s Kingdom,” originally published by NEEDLE: A Magazine of Noir, is included in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2014 and “Above the Imperial” is featured in PHILADELPHIA NOIR.
I could go on — he’s also a really down-to-earth guy and great fun to talk to — but let’s get to it. Here are Four Questions With… Dennis Tafoya.
A lot of really tough things are thrown at U.S. Marshal Frannie Mullen in THE POOR BOY’S GAME. Did you want to see how far you could push her? Did she pass the test?
I think I’m most interested in writing about people facing difficult circumstances — the stuff that exposes the difference between who we are and who we think we are. Who we’d like to be, maybe.
Don’t we all wonder whether we’re free agents or the products of how we’re raised? Putting characters into extreme situations is a way to display character in the most interesting way I can. I’m not interested in characters who never make mistakes of judgment or who win every fight.
Frannie struggles with her own nature; she’s quick to anger and slow to trust. She hopes that being in law enforcement separates her from the family history of criminality and substance abuse, but over the course of the novel she’s forced to confront her assumptions and allow that she has her own weaknesses and frailties. I hope that everyone finds that as interesting as I do.
Philadelphia is a rich and, I believe, underrated location for crime fiction. How important is that setting to you, and how do you make it come alive?
I think it’s about learning as much as I can and using the most interesting and Philly-specific stuff. We have our own accents and familiar phrases. Philly has its problems with guns and drugs, but I don’t want to make the city seem like a darker or more dangerous place than it actually is, and when I write about crime I want to get our accent right, too.
There’s a sign that I used in the book, a sign warning junkies out of a bar in Port Richmond, that was a sign that actually hung in a bar on Clearfield. Port Richmond is a great old Philly neighborhood with its own history and traditions. I get the Polish bakeries in there, but I also get the folks who struggle to get through the day.
How much research did you have to do writing this book?
I feel strongly that research is the best engine for story, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time doing research.
I’m pretty shy about talking to people I don’t know, but I read a lot and I use the internet and watch videos. One of the films I loved from a couple of years ago was about the Toynbee Tiles, a genuine Philadelphia mystery, called Resurrect Dead, and I knew I’d have to include something about the tiles in POOR BOY’S GAME.
I use Philly’s criminal history (the Roofers Union scandals play a big part in the book), but I also want to get the coolest parts of our culture in there, too. I’ve written about the murals and those fantastic billboards that Zoe Strauss had up all over the city.
Doing research for POOR BOY’S GAME, I got some great tips about the relationship between boxing and organized crime from Greg Gillespie, the owner of Port Richmond Books, which is an excellent bit of Philly culture in its own right.
Ah, my life story isn’t exceptional or particularly interesting, I don’t think. But buy me a beer sometime and I’d be happy to bore you for hours about my favorite books, movies, art and music.