Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Grifter's Song: Episodes 1 and 2

“A Grifter’s Song” is an ambitious contemporary literary project orchestrated by author Frank Zafiro. The idea is a series of 90-page short novels - released more or less monthly - about a con-artist couple on the run. Different authors are invited to write installments that are collected into “seasons” like a television show. The cover art is a gorgeous throwback style and the line-up of writers who have committed to the series looks promising.

Down & Out Books is the publisher of “A Grifter’s Song,” and their business model relies on selling subscriptions like Netflix with the latest edition being delivered monthly to your eReader device starting in January 2019. Individual installments will also be sold separately through the publisher or via Amazon Kindle. Hard copies will be published compiling three episodes in each paperback volume starting in July 2019.

Titles and authors for Season One are:

• The Concrete Smile by Frank Zafiro,
• People Like Us by JD Rhoades,
• The Whale by Lawrence Kelter,
• The Movie Makers by Gary Phillips,
• Lost in Middle America by Colin Conway,
• Losing Streak by Jim Wilsky.

Authors committed to Season Two (launching in 2020) are:

• Eric Beetner,
• Asa Maria Bradley,
• Eryk Pruitt,
• Holly West,
• Scott Eubanks,
• Frank Zafiro.

So, we have great cover art and a cool delivery gimmick, but this series will succeed or fail based on the quality of the books. I love con-artist stories, so I decided to check out the first two novellas.

A Grifter’s Song #01: The Concrete Smile by Frank Zafiro

In this inaugural episode, we meet long-con experts Sam and Rachel mid-sting In St. Louis. Sam has a blowhard businessman - who fancies himself as a real ladies man - on the hook. Meanwhile, Rachel - a real head turner - has a key role in the grift that is also one of the book’s best surprise reveals.

We learn that Sam and Rachel had some recent problems in Philadelphia when they conned a good chunk of change from some mafia types who aren’t excited to forgive and forget. The hope is that if they stay off the Philly mob’s radar screen long enough, they may be able to extend the useful life of their kneecaps well into the future.

An interesting subtext to this short novel - and likely the series - is the idea that Rachel leverages her intense sex appeal against the target, and this sparks pangs of jealousy in Sam despite the fact that Rachel is a total pro just playing her part. I hope future installments by the other authors tease out this idea as it creates a compelling inner conflict in Sam and tension between the principals.

The con itself is a rather complicated business transaction where the partners are gently manipulating the mark into buying a company that has no functional assets. The modest con turns into a possible big score - with added risks - along the way. The plot doesn’t get too bogged down in the details of the underlying transaction and instead chooses to focus on the human element of the coercion. The result is a fascinating character study of a con-game mechanics that recalls the glory days of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback originals from the 1950s.

The tension and excitement is ratcheted up considerably for the last act of the book with an interesting twist propelling the couple into their next installment. Overall, “The Concrete Smile” was an outstanding debut of a series that hopefully can sustain this level of quality in the hands of new writers who didn’t create the series from scratch.

A Grifter’s Song #02: People Like Us by JD Rhoades

The second installment in the “A Grifter’s Song” was penned by a Shamus Award winning mystery author from North Carolina named J.D. Rhoades. The shift in writing style from Zafiro to Rhodes is never jarring, nor does it take reader out of the story. The new author also provides a wider range of third-person perspectives throughout the novel beyond just Sam.

The action moves to Raleigh, North Carolina where Sam and Rachel team up with a grandmotherly grifter named Aunt Sally who Sam knew back when he was coming up in the game. Aunt Sally catches wind that there’s a contract on Sam and Rachel from the Philly mob and offers to bring them in on a con assuming that they needed a gig.

In this case, the target is a rich southerner with a fetish for Civil War memorabilia. The plan is to sell him a counterfeit long-sword of Stonewall Jackson while convincing the mooch that it’s the real deal. To do that, Sam needs to don a tweed jacket and become a fellow collector of American historical artifacts essentially vouching for the authenticity of the sword while driving up the price. Rachel plays the alluring female bait keeping the mark off-balance with lust.

If this book was just about a jackass getting fleeced by some expert grifters, it would have been perfect. Rhoades is clearly a talented writer who knows his way around a good plot structure. However, the author chooses to make this fun little crime story a political statement by wading into the unfortunate culture war currently plaguing the U.S.

You see, the Civil War loving target is a de-platformed history professor harboring regressive views about the treatment of black slaves in the south. This makes him a hero to the alt-right and a villain to the woke left when all I wanted to do was read a damn con-man story. After all, I read crime fiction to get away from the political culture war, and I suspect I’m not alone. Right wing straw men being ridiculed in a left-leaning thriller is just as creatively bankrupt as the bestsellers of Brad Thor and William Johnstone when they slaughter cartoonish fictional liberals. If I want a culture war, I have Twitter on my phone.

Of course, the author escalates the conservative craziness into a place where no right-thinking American could find a rooting interest in the race-war loving villains of this thriller. If that gives anyone a greater sense of comfort about injecting politics into the series, so be it. I’m just not sure that alienating half of one’s potential audience is a wise business strategy while trying to get a new series off the ground.

The shame is that the actual con-artist story here is otherwise well-executed. The violent aspirations of the manhunter from the Philadelphia mafia increase the stakes to make this grift work, and the conclusion was good enough to keep me interested in Episode 3.

Series Evaluation

“A Grifter’s Song” has the capacity to be a total blast of it sticks to clever cons and exciting thrills. The installments are the perfect length to never overstay their welcome, and con-artist stories give the authors plenty of room to spread their wings and get creative. Sam and Rachel are great leads, and the unsympathetic mooches chosen for their scams are worthy targets.

The idea of a loosely-affiliated network of grifters across the U.S. who know each other and occasionally collaborate is a fun universe in which to set a series. In that sense, “A Grifter’s Song” recalls Richard Stark’s Parker novels where heist pros gather to set up big scores as a team. The network of independent actors for these scams should keep the series fresh and evergreen.

The ongoing story arc that has Sam and Rachel one step ahead of hunters from the Philadelphia mafia ties these stand-alone con-man stories into a real series with a sense of urgency and continuity. That aspect reminded me of the old TV show “The Fugutive” or even “The A-Team.” No matter how well or poorly any fraud scheme goes, there’s still this unsolvable problem hanging over their heads.

Based solely on the first two installments, it appears that “A Grifter’s Song” has the potential to be a real winner. Hopefully, future episodes won’t poison the well with individual author’s worst instincts and personal agendas. A strong editorial hand should ensure the literary success of this ambitious project. I’m interested to see where this is headed. Recommended.

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