What I’m Reading: Grind Joint

Grind Joint is another Writers of Chantilly book, this one by long-time member Dana King.  It’s a hard-boiled mystery about a good cop, “Doc” Dougherty, in Penns River, a once-prosperous but now dumpy industrial town.  The title refers to the new casino in town–a grind joint being a downscale casino catering to the most desperate clientele.  No sooner does the place open its doors than a dead body shows up on its doorstep.  Seems the casino has attracted the attention of some Russian gangsters, who want to move in and displace the Italian mob family that’s long used Penns River as a convenient, low-key base for their real business down in Pittsburgh.  The Russian gangsters figure the grind joint will being some real action to Penns River, and have no desire in keeping things low-key in pushing out the mafiosa.  It’s up to Doc to solve the murder and stop the coming gang war, if he can.

Now in my life I’ve read perhaps eight or ten hard-boiled mysteries, and half of those were during a summer in high school when I got into the Spenser series, but even I can see that there’s nothing particularly original in the plot or characters here.  But that’s hardly the point.  I think a mystery fan would find this lean and perfectly-paced, with proper genuflection to all the stations of the genre cross.

What interested me, however, was another book, contained in the same pages but hidden under the genre conventions: an anthropological study of a west Pennsylvania mill town in decline. I hope that doesn’t make it sound boring, because I mean the opposite. With just a few lines of naturalistic dialogue, with a passing comment about traffic patterns, an offhand line about a streetscape, a short sketch of the relationship between a politician and a mobster, King deftly builds up a thick description of Penns River, a stand-in for any number of actual towns far enough from Pittsburgh not to be suburbs, but close enough to still be in its orbit.

So there you have my recommendation–Grind Joint is suitable both for the reader who might enjoy its considerable virtues as hard-boiled detective novel, but even more so for a student of American urbanism who wants a nuanced document of a decaying industrial town, fictional in this case but different only in the particulars from hundreds of other actual towns.

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