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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Young Americans vs. Hillbilly Crime Lords and La Causa Nostra





By Josh Stallings

288 pages

( Heist Publishing; October 30, 2015)

ISBN-10: 0996948007

ISBN-13: 978-0996948005




The estimable Josh Stallings has pulled off something remarkable in his newest crime novel, Young Americans: he has managed to write a story set solidly in the mid 1970s that is utterly tone perfect. The language spoken by the characters, the set-up, the settings and not least of all, the music: all exactly right for the period.


On top of that, it is a delightful read.


This is the story of a skilled thief and safe cracker, Sam, and her Mensa-level little brother Jacob.  Sam was brought up to a life of crime by her father and grand dad. She can use a set of picks to open any deadbolt in under two minutes. When she graduates to safes under the tutelage of her gramps, she can crack a four pin model inside three.


Jacob is a typical sophisticated kid of the seventies. He is slated for enrollment in a good quality college, smokes a little dope, plays around with his equally bright chums and adores his older sister.


Sam split the Bay Area for Seattle sometime before the action begins. When she ran out of money on her way to the north she ended up a dancer in a Humboldt County strip bar, “Rapunzel’s.”  The joint caters to a rough crew and a few adventurous students from the college up the Interstate. It also serves as a front for drug sales and prostitution. Its owner, a dubious fellow named Breeze, is a sleaze ready to stab a friend in the back if there is profit in it.


And he does, trust me.


The action of the book centers on a double cross by Breeze that forces Sam to rob a San Francisco disco owned by a made Mafia member.  There are crosses and double crosses – even a triple cross by my count – as Sam struggles to satisfy her former boss while keeping her family – including her brother – alive.


In addition to a gripping account of the heist, the book features a pair of Breeze’s half-witted associates who spell trouble for the young Americans, a gay bodyguard and leg breaker who is as big as a horse, a couple of near misses by assassins and an undercover DEA agent who is almost as bent  as the actual crooks.


I’m here to tell you that the story is completely authentic. I’ve spent some time in the Cannabis Crescent of Northern California and Stallings is dead-bang about the twisted relationship between hillbilly dealers and the dope trade in the 1970s. 

Author Josh Stallings
I also polished adjectives for Bay Area newspapers during the time in which the story takes place and Stallings has the Bay Area down pat. He does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of that period, the drug scene, even the music featured by local venues. Example: the robbers plan their heist for a night when Sylvester and the Hot Band are scheduled to play at the Mafioso’s disco-night club. Few people today know anything about Sylvester – the openly gay singer who emerged from the gender-fuck cast of The Cockettes to become a disco superstar – but Stallings remembers.

One element of the book is the disbelief among the major characters that a Mafia member would run a nightclub that caters to homosexuals, let alone be queer himself.


Young Americans can be so naïve!


One of the first investigative stories I did for the San Francisco Chronicle was a look into a nightclub, Studio West, that was constantly being busted for drug trafficking. When I back-tracked the club’s records, I discovered it was owned by Henry and Carmine Vara, two alleged members of the Patriarca crime family in New England. A third partner, Frank Cashman, was suspected of burning down a rival’s club in Atlanta, though investigators from that city’s arson division could not find enough solid  evidence to win his indictment.


Young Americans is definitely a two thumbs up for me. Stallings not only tells a story that will have the reader biting his or her nails, but he does it so smoothly that his audience stops looking for anachronisms after about three pages because they simply can’t be found.


This is a fine book.  Give it a read – you won’t be sorry.

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