Once you turn to a life of crime, there’s just no hope of reversing the momentum. Or at least that’s what career thief Crissa Stone—the star of Wallace Stroby’s trilogy of recent thrillers, including his new Shoot the Woman First—has come to recognize.
“I think that’s been an ongoing realization in all three books,” says the 53-year-old journalist turned author, a lifelong Jersey Shore resident. “She would like to plan her life the way she plans her work. In Cold Shot to the Heart [which introduced the character], she has visions of owning a house in Connecticut, freeing her lover from prison and being reunited with her daughter. But, of course, things don’t go as planned.” Indeed, her elder inamorato and quondam criminal mentor, Wayne, remains incarcerated in a Texas lockup, while her young daughter, Maddie, lives with Crissa’s cousin Leah, blind to the real facts of her parentage, probably safer that way. Crissa’s life, filled with meticulously plotted heists, and big scores, and bullets flying in lethal trajectories, doesn’t leave room for childcare. Or much in the way of a fulfilling existence for Stroby’s 30something protagonist, either.
Too many things could go wrong. And do. Take the events in Shoot the Woman First, for instance. Crissa assembles a small team of fellow lawbreakers in Detroit, Mich., for the purpose of separating careless drug dealers from half a million dollars in nefariously acquired gains. But the job goes spectacularly wrong, leaving Crissa alone with a bagful of hot cash and cold-blooded killers on her tail. The deadliest of those trackers is a onetime Motor City cop named Francis X. Burke, who follows the resourceful thief’s path to southern Florida. There, she’s hoping to give some of the drug proceeds to the poor family of a slain partner. Burke, though, wants to get his mitts on it first, and it falls to Crissa Stone to figure out how she can fulfill her mercy mission without leaving her late cohort’s family vulnerable to Burke’s habitual violence.
I recently asked author Stroby some questions about his series’ past and promise.
When you sat down to write your first Crissa Stone novel, 2011’s Cold Shot to the Heart, was it your protagonist or your plot line that came first? Had you long wanted to compose a series featuring a female lead?
I’d had the general plot line in my head for many years, and took a crack at it awhile back with a few brief chapters that didn’t really go anywhere. After 2010’s Gone ’Til November, I was interested in writing about a female protagonist again, especially one operating in an all-male world, and having to prove herself on a regular basis. It was the merger of those two ideas that led to Cold Shot.
Having done your research into professional female criminals, how is Crissa typical of the breed?
There’s an excellent scholarly book called Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, by Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker, published by Northeastern University Press. They interviewed a wide cross-section of career criminals, from street-corner stickup boys to high-end commercial armed robbers. And of the woman they talked to, about 90 percent of them had been brought into that life by a man, usually a lover/mentor who was older than them. That idea became, for me, one of the foundations of Crissa’s character.
Of course, she’s also an entirely fictional creation. She isn’t based on anyone in real life, and I don’t know that anyone like her has ever existed anywhere anyway.
How has Crissa surprised you during your writing of these tales?
It’s not so much how she’s surprised me, as how she has had to change over the course of the novels. At the beginning of Cold Shot, she’d never killed a man, never even fired a shot in anger. So when the events of that book are over, they had to have changed her. She’s by necessity a different person by the time of [her second novel-length outing] Kings of Midnight—colder, tougher, more quick to do what has to be done. As in real life, the actions that the characters take have to affect them in the long run. You can’t start from square one again with every book.
Crissa Stone is pretty damn tough. Do you ever worry that you’re making her too tough to be believable?
No more so than with any character. You want them to behave as befits their backgrounds and skill sets. Crissa knows she’s often physically at a disadvantage, which is why she’s always using her head and working the angles, like in the confrontation at the end of Shoot the Woman First.
At least the early part of your new novel takes place in Detroit. Having lived in the Motor City for a while, I found your representation of it true but never complete. As if you’d done research, but not visited the city, never gotten a feel for the individual neighborhoods. How did you go about establishing your Detroit backdrop?
I don’t think any description of a city is ever “complete,” because it depends on perspective, which changes from person to person. The Los Angeles that an oil-field worker knows is going to be vastly different than the one a wannabe-actress experiences, even if they’re in the same geographic area.
Also, in Crissa’s case, she’s an outsider, in the city only briefly. All she knows is what she sees and what she’s told in the course of the planning. She has no greater knowledge of the city than what she experiences firsthand.
That said, the Detroit sequences were originally going to be only a small part of Shoot the Woman First, just the first two chapters. So I didn’t feel the need to physically go there. However, as the Detroit part grew, I realized I was going to need more of a feel for the place. So I did a lot of Internet research, watched some documentaries, read the Detroit papers online and found various photo references. Then I had a Detroit native vet those sections for me, and she found a lot of stuff I never would have thought of, but was able to fix as a result.
In the end, though, it’s a work of fiction. And I’ve always thought it’s more important to be convincing than accurate.
You’ve been penning fiction for a long time now. What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller?
I like to write action, and I enjoy stripping a story down to its essentials, so it runs lean and mean. Some reviewers have said they’d like a breather once in a while, to spend some time with the characters when they’re not speeding the plot along. I understand that, and in some cases in the past, I’ve written those scenes and then taken them out.
I always lean toward the terse, but I’m aware that sometimes things can go too far in that direction.
Can I assume that you’re working on a fourth Crissa Stone novel?
Yes, there’s one in the works. Can’t say much about the plot at this point, but the working title is The Devil’s Share.