In his fourth novel, Toronto author John McFetridge returns to the gritty streets of his home city, and fans of his previous books won’t be disappointed. A has-been rock ’n’ roll band called the High share top billing with the Saints of Hell motorcycle gang in this tightly plotted, snappy endeavour.
The High have reunited for a nostalgia tour, but the band’s lead singer, Cliff, and bassist, Barry, find that robbing loan sharks at gunpoint in casino parking lots is more lucrative than music. Their next gig is at Huron Woods, a casino where their old manager, who ripped them off back in their glory days, now works as entertainment director. Cliff and Barry see an opportunity to score some big money, and some payback.
What they don’t know is that their erstwhile manager is a wannabe gangster playing a dangerous game, two-timing his Philadelphia mob bosses with the Saints of Hell. Danny Mac, the vice-president of the Saints, is nostalgic for the old days of the rebel biker lifestyle, leaving his wife, Gayle, to run the gang’s legitimate businesses. In Huron Woods, Gayle sees an ideal opportunity not only to launder money, but to earn the respect of the Saints.
Danny Mac and Gayle will be familiar to readers of McFetridge’s earlier novels, but they aren’t the only returning characters. On the other side of the law-and-order divide, the cops Loewen, Armstrong, and Price investigate the brewing turf war between the Saints and the Philly mob. McFetridge wields a deft hand to manoeuvre new characters and old to maximum effect. Some fold, some win big, but the book offers no tidy ending.
Throughout McFetridge demonstrates that he knows his music as well as his crime. There is authenticity to the band’s backstage bickering, particularly in elements such as Cliff’s LSD (lead singer disease). The book positively exudes rock ’n’ roll cred: it’s full of dirt, sex, and sweat, and its title is only one of many homages to classic rock.
McFetridge’s title also points to the gambling, both literal and metaphoric, that pervades his book. Each of McFetridge’s colourful characters takes huge chances, frequently hoping for an equally huge payoff. The only one not taking a chance on Tumblin’ Dice is the reader.