Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 12, 2011

The Dark Side of the Street by Dennis Tafoya

The Author Chronicles gives a warm welcome and thanks to Dennis Tafoya, our second Mystery Month author guest, who comments on the challenges facing crime/mystery writers and how some well-known authors meet those challenges.

To enter the contest to win a signed copy of his latest book The Wolves of Fairmount Park, simply leave a comment at the end of the post – just saying ‘hi’ is fine.


by Dennis Tafoya

Thomas Mann said that a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. I take comfort from that sentiment, because it’s reassuring that even a Nobel laureate had difficulty finding the right words. I have friends who write thousands of words a day (and win awards for their work) and I find that kind of facility astonishing. I write slowly.

I write crime novels, which provide some special challenges, most of which revolve around the constant struggle to avoid cliché. We all know the tropes of crime: the dark and lawless world, the damaged protagonist, the thankless fight to know the truth and make the world whole. Finding fresh ideas and coupling them to fresh prose is no mean feat, and I admire any writer who takes on the task and does it well.

I’ve learned a lot from Elmore Leonard, who effortlessly works both sides of the law in his books, creating upright cops like Raylan Givens of TV’s Justified, or Carl Webster of “The Hot Kid”, but having just as much fun with career criminals Ordell Robbie of “Rum Punch” and wily con artist Dawn Navarro of “Road Dogs.” Leonard knows that the work is all in the dialogue, and delivers fast and funny lines while still pulling us close enough that we care what happens to his protagonists and we fear the consequences of the games, scams and heists his characters constantly run on each other.

Lawrence Block is another crime writer whose work teaches me something every time I read it, and I especially recommend his Matt Scudder novels to anyone who aspires to write well, not to mention anyone who is looking for an entertaining and affecting read. Block and Leonard are both masters of their trade, and though their styles are very different, their work manages to hit all the notes we expect in good crime while remaining fresh and engaging.

Some of the authors whose work I love subvert the whole premise: Scott Phillips is categorized as a crime writer, but rather than a PI or a cop righting the world’s wrongs, many of his books feature the gleefully criminal running riot. Wayne Ogden of “The Walkaway” and Scott’s newest release, “The Adjustment,” is a violent pimp and fixer for his sex-crazed boss newly returned from World War II Rome and straining against the bonds of the normal life for which his former-GI comrades might long.

Fans of Jim Thompson’s dark noir will recognize some of Lou Ford in Wayne, who works the same dark side of the street and is just as capable both of extreme violence and an odd sympathy for his own victims. Wayne and Lou are fascinating because they’re not familiar, and because they subvert our understanding of how villains are supposed to act. It’s a rare thing in genre writing to run across characters whose possibilities are unrestricted by convention or cliché, so the result is that we can’t take our eyes off them and we don’t know exactly how to feel about them.

That subversion of our expectation, that unwillingness to dictate to readers what their reactions should be allows the really interesting stuff to come through: genuine character, startling or innovative plots and new ideas – the payoff for the struggle to find the right words.

Dennis Tafoya lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, DOPE THIEF and THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, as well as numerous short stories appearing in collections such as PHILADELPHIA NOIR from Akashic Books and LIAR, LIAR, written by members of the Philadelphia Liars Club, which came out as an ebook and trade paperback in September 2011. Dennis is also a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. He has been nominated for two Spinetingler awards and his novels have been optioned for film.


  1. Thanks for sharing your faves, Dennis. I haven’t read widely in the literary mystery genre but adored Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, which to my mind contains examples of just about anything an aspiring author needs to learn. I’ll definitely check some of these out, and am thrilled to be able to enter to win a copy of your book!


  2. Thanks, as Kathryn said, for sharing your faves. I haven’t read a lot of mystery books since junior high, when I loved Agatha Christie. After reading your post, I may have to put aside my sci-fi and find the genre again.


  3. I was a big fan of crime novels many years ago. I love the fact that your novels are set locally. Will be investing in a copy of Dope Thief and hope to win a copy of The Wolves of Fairmount Park. Thanks for sharing your favorites.


  4. I’d love to read The Wolves of Fairmount Park.


  5. Interesting piece, Dennis. Fascinating to hear who influences your writing and how you relate to your work!


  6. I’ve read Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson’s work. I’d love to “taste” this new author (to me).


  7. It does my heart good to find another writer who admits that words do not come easily. You and I are in good company, I’ll bet. Good luck with your present venture.


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