Book Review: Tombs, a Crime Thriller by TJ Vargo

The Bottom Line: Elmore Leonard fans will devour this fast-paced tale of betrayal, women, motorcycles and stolen taxidermy.

As Tombs opens, Curtis Monroe is running from security guards and a pair of rottweilers. His veins are flooded with adrenaline. He’s hyper-focused on the sound of his feet on the grass and the burn in his muscles. A little while later, he’s counting his cash – $30,000 – under the watchful eye of a taxidermied Marlin, who he affectionately calls “Big Blue.”

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Such is the lonely life of TJ Vargo’s protagonist. Curtis’ friends are the kind of low-life criminals often found in old James Ellroy tales, and Tombs – the place for which the book is named – is a dead-end town if there ever was one.

As in all stories about small-time gangsters, loyalty is hard to come by, and it’s only a matter of time before Curtis’ money – and Big Blue – are taken from him. Curtis sees himself as not only more intelligent, but generally above his peers in Tombs. He’s right, of course, but he’s also filled with self-doubt. “I should have my head examined,” he says at one point. “Keep doing the same shit over and over, expecting it to be different.”

Those vulnerabilities are at least part of what makes him so compelling. For all his faults, Curtis at least knows what he wants, and that’s to make a change in his life. But at times, it seems as if everyone and everything is working against him. As if the town itself is keeping him against his will.

Enter Joe Cracker Jones, a former cage fighter. As bad as they come, Vargo has given Curtis a formidable villain. By the book’s midway point, it’s clear that if Curtis is going to survive this bloody ordeal – much less start a new life – his path will go through Jones. Fortunately, we’re all invited to go along for the ride.

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