The title of this book intrigued me, since I know that a grind joint is a small casino aimed at a very local market. No high rollers arriving in private jets, no Asian billionaires playing baccarat at $100,000 a hand, no world-famous entertainers in the luxurious showroom. Just tables, slot machines, whiskey, and second-rate food. I looked forward to reading a novel set in such a gritty world.
Well, I was out of luck, but you know what? I don’t care. Like many of my own titles, this one is not intended to tell the story, or even set the locale. It only evokes a feel, pulls the potential reader inside the pages, and does not ever, ever disappoint.
The casino referred to in the title is merely under construction and eagerly awaited by many residents of Penns River, a fading mill town not far from Pittsburgh. On the opening page, the corpse of a drug dealer is found at its front door, kickstarting the plot of Grind Joint (Stark House Press, 2013), the latest novel from Dana King.
This is the second in King’s series of hard-edged police procedurals set in Penns River. The first, Worst Enemies, was an excellent intro to the series, and its storyline is repeatedly alluded to throughout Grind Joint.
Penns River Detective Ben Dougherty has seen everything one can possibly see after a lifetime in a small town. He knows, and his superiors know, that Mike Mannarino is responsible for the drug dealer’s murder. The pressure’s on to bust him. Problem is, there’s no hard evidence on which to bring him in.
Mannarino used to be a big shot. Used to run the rackets in Pittsburgh while living a quiet life in Penns River, where his presence insured a crime-free existence for his neighbors. Nowadays, however, the Mafia ain’t what it used to be, with Mannarino’s organization whittled down to himself and a couple of trusted henchmen. The Russian mob in New York gets wind of this decline through a link to ownership of the grind joint, and pretty soon you have madman Yuri Volkov and his posse squarely in the picture.
Add a former intelligence agent-turned-casino-security-chief, along with a corrupt police official, and you have a book you can’t put down.
Another plus is the pronunciation guide King wisely inserted in the front pages, easing the reader through the nearly-indecipherable ethnic surnames common to Western Pennsylvania.
Cop work and tough talk aside, at the novel’s heart lie the personal ethics of the people of Penns River, not only Dougherty and his co-workers, but ordinary civilians as well. This book is in many ways really a display of solid small-town values, which have long formed the spine of America. I’m sure King didn’t set out to do it that way, but in addition to a page-turning crime novel laced with living dialogue and plenty of tension, he offers up a unique, back-door vision of good people faced with hard, dwindling choices in a town on the ropes.
Recommendation: This is a book you should check out. King is a writer to watch.