Review: Frank Zafiro’s River City Crime Series

Frank Zafiro is an author that many people have recommended to me, but for one reason or another I never got around to reading his stuff. At a recent book signing I finally purchased Under a Raging Moon, the first book in the River City Crime series published by Gray Dog Press. (Coincidentally, this is where our own Marcus Corder now spends many of his working hours.) I finished the novel in one sitting and then rushed down to Auntie’s to purchase Heroes Often Fail and Beneath a Weeping Sky. Now I’m impatiently waiting for the fourth book, End Every Man Has to Die, which won’t be out until March 2011.

River City is fictional, but readers familiar with Spokane will recognize street names and landmarks mentioned in the books. The novels have fast paced plots and fantastic characters. As many of you know, I’m a fan of women’s fiction with strong female leads, but my other weakness is police procedurals and crime/legal thrillers. (My TiVo also have season passes to all flavors of Law & Order.) I love these plot driven books, but they won’t keep my attention unless I’m invested in and care about the characters. In a recent Willow Springs interview, Jess Walter talked about how crime fiction often focus too much on plot but that the complaint about literary fiction is that there isn’t enough story. He thinks there’s a “sweet spot in the middle” that an author can aim for. Zafiro’s novels hit right at that perfect spot and this is one of the reasons why I’m such a huge fan.

In addition to clever dialogue and clipped sentences, the plot moves quickly because the chapters are divided into chunks marked by the military hours in which they start. At times I felt like I was watching an episode of Southland(which NBC should never have cancelled and it’s a good thing TNT picked it up). Another similarity to that TV show is that the River City books offer the perspective of the cops in uniform, which is refreshing in a genre that mostly deals in detectives as main characters. I like the unique “on the street” perspective and Zafiro creates tension by showing how unpredictable the public can be and how much trust there has to be between police partners. Oh, and there are great chase scenes on foot and in cars.

Most of the characters in the books arereoccurring and although they have circumstances in common with stereotypical characters of the genre—Thomas Chisolm is a former Green Beret with a bit of a hero complex, Stefan Kopriva is the hotshot new cop who thinks he knows everything, and Katie McLeod is the woman cop having to deal with the testosterone-overload of her profession—Zafiro makes them multi-dimensional. None of them are perfect; all of them are flawed, and they make bad decisions and have bad days like anybody else. I found all of them human and believable.

I am especially impressed by how the author handles McLeod. In many crime novels, female characters—even those created by women authors—come across as too emotionally damaged or super abrasive because they work in a male dominated field. I love that Katie McLeod is just as assertive as her male colleagues, but also strong enough to have female traits without it making her venerable. In Heroes Often Fail, McLeod is the emotionally strongest person.  When things go wrong on a case she keeps it together and soldier on, while her male academy classmate and fellow officer can’t handle the consequences of his choices and actions.

In addition to the elements that create the fast paced plot and strong characters, the writer in me is interested in how Zafiro crafted a story and character arch in each book but also across the series. Each novel can be read out of order and as a stand-alone, but when read in order, the characters’ depths increase as does the dimensions of their interpersonal relationships. This is also why the books are so addictive. I want to know what happens in the police officers’ new adventures, but also what’s going to happen in their personal narratives. But Zafiro never turns it into a soap opera; the focus stays on the case and the police business at hand. He keeps his prose at a fine balance between enough interpersonal intrigue to make it interesting and enough police adventure to add suspense.  

So, if you’re a fan of well written crime fiction and/or interested in how to balance plot with strong characters and/or want to know how to write a successful serie, you too should read the River City Crime series. I recommend reading them in order and when you are finished, you, like me, will wish that Frank Zafiro could write faster so we don’t have to wait six months for the next installment.

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