Friday, April 9, 2021


DEAD OF WINTER by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A shadowy Detroit real estate billionaire. A ruthless fixer. A successful Mexicantown family business in their crosshairs. Gentrification has never been bloodier.

Authentico Foods Inc. has been a part of Detroit’s Mexicantown for over thirty years, grown from the small home kitchen to a city-block-long facility where sixty people produce Mexican foodstuffs for restaurants and stores throughout the Midwest.

Detroit ex-cop and Mexicantown native August Snow has been invited for a business meeting at Authentico Foods. Its owner, Ronaldo Ortega, is dying, and is being blackmailed into selling the company to an anonymous entity. Ortega is worried about his employees and wants August to step in. 

August has no interest in running a tortilla empire, but he does want to know who’s threatening his neighbourhood. His investigation immediately takes a shocking turn. Now August and his loved ones are caught up in a heinous net of billionaire developers who place no value on human life, and August Snow must go to war for the soul of Mexicantown.

Stephen Mack Jones is an author I'd heard good things about, so I was excited to read his new novel DEAD OF WINTER, the third in his award-winning series starring Detroit ex-cop August Snow. 

I was quite intrigued by the fact Jones had won the Hammett Prize with his debut, a crime writing award I've long held in high regard as it celebrates 'literary excellence' in the field, and has a list of winners including some remarkable stylists such as Elmore Leonard, William Deverell, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, James Sallis, and literary doyenne Margaret Atwood. Past nominees also include Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Normal Mailer. Greatness indeed. 

While it may not be as widely known as the CWA Daggers or Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize is an award I looked to when establishing the Ngaio Marsh Awards over a decade ago. So for Stephen Mack Jones - who's been a playwright and poet before turning to crime - to have joined such an illustrious list of winners and nominees with his debut novel, AUGUST SNOW, was eye-catching to me. 

I'm very glad to say DEAD OF WINTER more than met my high expectations, to the point where after finishing it I immediately went online and bought both the prior books in the series, kicking myself for dallying in getting to Stephen Mack Jones' terrific, rich and multi-layered storytelling. 

While Detroit native August Snow has the skills of a detective, he carries neither badge nor license. Instead, the former marine sniper and Detroit cop has a reputation, hard-won and whispered among some of the businesspeople and residents of Mexicantown: "I was both Batman and Chupacabra. Superman and Satan. A half-breed angel with blood-soaked wings in search of cultural and holy redemption”. August Snow is an honourable man who tries to help people - particularly the downtrodden or overlooked - thoughtful and sometimes (necessarily) violent. 

One of the things that impressed me most about DEAD OF WINTER is that it is a thrilling tale that stalks along with a blend of power and poetry you might see in a middle-weight boxer. Flowing in a balletic way between, even during, the brutal moments. There's poetry and power, grace and grit. 

The first bell rings when August Snow is summoned by Ronald Ochoa, a dying businessman who’s being blackmailed into selling his company Authentico Foods, a stalwart of Detroit’s Mexicantown for decades. Can August, whose bank balance runs to ten figures thanks to a settlement from the city after he was wrongly jettisoned as a cop, save Authentico Foods’ workers and the neighbourhood? 

Ochoa wants August to buy his company rather than it falling into the wrong hands; August prefers to investigate the shadows. Just who is behind the not-so-friendly takeover, and what do they really want?

Stephen Mack Jones crafts a superb tale that bobs, weaves, and hits hard as August’s sleuthing puts himself and those he loves into grave danger. There’s action aplenty, but also rich characterisation, wonderful writing, and a strong sense of place. August’s investigation entwines with the whims and wishes of ruthless billionaire developers, and there’s plenty to chew on for readers when it comes to thought-provoking issues around gentrification, race relations, and inequality to go along with the moreish descriptions of culinary delights. Overall, DEAD OF WINTER is a superb crime novel from an author with a distinctive voice and something to say, in among the crime and carnage.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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