James Singleton, living as Washington Stewart, has spent ten years in the FBI witness protection program in North Dakota. He’s still involved in crime, though now he has the Feds to protect his back. Wanting a new life free of his shackles he’s finally found a payday big enough to skip the country – a haul of heroin smuggled into the country through a local air force base. In exchange for murdering the cheating wife of a crooked colonel and selling the heroin he’ll get a free air ride and half the profits. Before he departs, however, he wants to tie up a few lose ends, including arranging the death of Eddie Senta, the man responsible for his disfigured face. The hit goes wrong and another of Singleton’s old enemies, former NYPD Detective Alex Pavlik, is soon on his trail. The police are also becoming concerned at the spike in the local murder rate. Singleton remains unphased, knowing that the Feds will keep protecting him and delighting in dishing out his own version of rough justice.
One of the back cover blurbs describes Stella’s writing as a mix of Elmore Leonard and George V Higgins. It’s a high compliment, and though not unwarranted, I think does Stella a bit of a disservice for he has a style all of his own: multiple intersecting narratives, a couple of dozen lead characters, tightly written prose and crisp, punchy dialogue, plenty of action, and a plot that rattles along like a runaway train. It’s fair to say that there is a heck of a lot going on in the 250 pages of Rough Riders. It’s a testimony to Stella’s writing that despite the somewhat convoluted plot that the whole thing hangs together well and that I never got lost across the various narratives and characters. Indeed, where the story excels is with respect to the characters and their interchanges. Stella populates the story with a whole variety of low-level criminals, cops, and civilians, each one vividly portrayed. My only critique really is that it was a little too condensed; kind of like a six part series crammed into a movie format. And while I sometimes conclude reviews by saying the book would make a good film, this one would make a terrific TV serial.