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For years Josh Stallings built a reputation with his self published books. His hardcore hard boiled trilogy featuring, ex-biker and mob enforcer turned avenger Moses McGuire and his coming of age heist novel, Young Americans, earned praise from many in the crime fiction community. In 2020, Polis' imprint, Agora, attempted to give him the attention he deserved by publishing Tricky, showing another side of his talent. Unfortunately, it became an early victim of the Covid shut down. That said, it has been steadily talked about and is one of the best cop thrillers to come out of this decade so far.

In the first four pages, Stallings sets things in motion and establishes his hero, LAPD homicide detective Niels Madsen, by putting him in an intense situation. Madsen responds to a call with two uniforms in a standoff with a latino holding a pistol, standing over a body. Madsen gets the gun from the suspect, Cisco, who dubs him "Tricky" for using slick talk to disarm him. It turns out Cisco is a former gang enforcer, intellectually challenged after a violent incident (or he is pretending to be?) The victim, David Guiterrez, was a young man with down syndrome who lived in the same group home as Cisco. As he tries to determine Cisco's guilt or innocence, he must navigate Guiterrez's powerful grandfather, gangs, and questionable cops.

Stallings applies an amazing amount of craftsmanship and genre knowledge in telling this story. In a passage where Madsen informs David's mother of his death, gets under her skin and tangled emotions by simply detailing her dialogue and behavior. The self assuredness in his writing and characters, allows the reader to fully engage. In a moment between Madsen and his grandfather in early stages of dementia, before the climactic showdown, we are allowed to see either humor, sad poigaincey, or a mix of both.

Cisco is a wonderful creation. As someone who raised a son who is intellectually challenged, Stallings makes him a complete human being, not comic relief, sad victim, or simpleton saint. He carries himself with wit and depth, searching for answers that seem to be right in front of him yet elusive. If we change the wording of many of those questions, they are not that different from our own. His dark past clashes with his current situation for us to wonder about the nature of innocence.

He also gives us an entertaining, complex hero in Madsen. Orphaned young and raised by his grandfather in Tujlunga, the cowboy country at the edge of the city, he is full of humor and contradictions. He may question the institution of the police, but lives and upholds its intended values as well as his cowboy code. If I have any gripe about the book, it's that I wish Josh found more opportunity to expand on his background and surroundings that the understandable decision to travel along a tight plot didn't allow. Hopefully there will be more Niels Madsen books to explore this.

Tricky is a great cop thriller and so much more. It straddles the works of Michael Conelly and Craig Johnson with a style and voice all its own. If there's any of Madsen's cowboy justice in the real world, Josh Stallings will finally get the audience he deserves.


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