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The Barcelona Review



Dead of Winter      
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press, Inc, 2021

Mexicantown-Southwest Detroit is a down-to-earth neighborhood filled with informal restaurants offering traditional Mexican food and old-school bakeries selling sugary churros, so reads its Wiki entry. It provides the setting for Stephen Mack Jones’ crime novels, featuring the half Black, half Mexican August Octavio Snow (August Snow, Lives Laid Away), an ex-cop, who has been awarded 12 million dollars from a wrongful termination suit filed against the Detroit PD.  In this latest, we find August called on to help Authentico Foods Inc, a family run business of many years, being pushed to sell for millions in cash by an anonymous speculator, represented by a Mr. Sloane, who wants to level the place to make room for condos. Ronaldo Ochoa, the business owner, doesn’t have long to live and to skirt the problem would like to sell the business to August for whom he has the highest respect. August isn’t interested in that proposition, but he is highly invested in helping preserve the Mexicantown business.  It seems Mr. Ochoa has run up gambling debts, so the push to sell has escalated to blackmail, and August is determined to get to the bottom of it.

This is the initial set-up of a series of incidents, beginning with a murder and the near death of August’s godfather Tomás.  There are several dead-ends – local bad guys being set up for the crime is the first of many obstacles that August faces.  And then there is Mr. Ochoa’s beautiful daughter, Jackie, returning to Mexicantown after many years, ready to take the cash for the sale, aided by a dubious lawyer.  The many twists and turns that follow make your head spin, but the convoluted plotting is saved by the many colorful characters we encounter:  There is August’s fierce godmother, Elena, who will shoot to kill when necessary; his lovely girlfriend Tatiana, half Norwegian, half Somali, wholly smart and sassy; buddies Carlos and Jimmy; Asian neighbor Lucy, a first-rate hacker;  cops with whom there is an uneasy relationship; and of course the many bad hombres, including the Chinese Xiang and the French Albino.  And, oh yes, a killer for hire, known as the Cleaner, a useful connection, in what is, I’m sure, a nod to Mosley’s Mouse.

This novel has many things going for it. The humor in it sparkles. August is a quick wit in the tradition of snappy dialogue from the likes of Raymond Chandler: “Are you going to kill me?” a bad guy asks him. “As a socially progressive political independent, the temptation is there, but no.”   And there is passing rumination on the difficulties of  being mixed race, such as in Mexicantown where “Blacks and Mexicans haven’t always been the best of pals”; along with commentary on the current political climate: Speaking of a ninety-year-old Black woman, considered by some to have “magical powers”:  “She’s just another example of the mental and spiritual acuity, tenacity, fearlessness and fathomless hope it takes Black folk to live a long life in a country that, in every vein of its deformed body, prefers we die with their knee on our neck.” And, oh yes, there is a delightful rant against the NFL.

Another charm of the novel is how August has a keen eye for interior design, architecture, art and fashion.  Thus, as easily as he knows his weaponry, he can casually identify a Jaquard sofa, a home designed by Louis Kamper, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, and even the Kenneth Cole and Donna Karan suits of a certain lunch crowd.  This is unexpected and lifts him far from any stereotype one may have assumed.

The action is over-the-top, rivaling John Wick in the finale and just as much fun. I should add that August was a sniper in Afghanistan and functions with a “low-level PSTD.”  It explains his skills and his daring.

I love the new line of crime novels coming from Black authors.  Along with Jones, there is S.A. Cosby, Attica Locke, Tracy Clark, and more.  Unlike the great Mosley, whom I adore, many of these new kids on the block don’t hesitate to address race head on, and Jones is the most outspoken.  That is a welcome and needed perspective.  Be sure to check it out.  J.A.       

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