Tom Kakonis: The Best Hardboiled Writer Working Today

Criss Cross by author Tom Kakonis

Don Herron is a crime fiction reviewer and an acknowledged expert on the hardboiled greats Dashiell Hammett and Charles Willeford, two authors that are hard to match, much less top. But now he says there’s a writer on the scene who is in the same league…

Okay, so you’ve read Hammett and you’ve read Raymond Chandler, and you still want more great hardboiled writing. I’m not going to give a personal recommendation to a lot more, but then I’m tough. I think the novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson are great. You won’t go wrong reading the crime novels of the black ex-patriat writer Chester Himes — Cotton Comes to HarlemThe Real Cool Killers, etc, but then Himes is too hardboiled for most people, which is one of the reasons his name is not automatically placed third after Hammett and Chandler (instead, critics wimped out and went with Ross MacDonald — I disagree completely). Also, I recommend Charles Willeford (highly) and the early crime novels of Elmore Leonard (especially City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit). I guess there is a lot of confusion over definitions — I remember one time (This Really Happened) when I was plugging Willeford and Elmore, and then a woman on the walk recommended to me Marcia Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes. Please. I’m talking the ultra-hardboiled here. I understand that many people don’t want the ultra — when I blurb Charles Willeford, I tell people: Read Miami Blues. If you like Miami Blues, you’ll like everything he wrote. If not, forget it, try to find something else you’ll enjoy.

And then, after you’ve read so far, the big problem becomes finding more. Maybe even something new. When Willeford died after eating an extra-large pepperoni pizza, I figured that was it for awhile — no one else I could recommend would surface for a few years. I’m glad to say I was wrong. Tom Kakonis appeared that same year with Michigan Roll, and has followed up with Criss Cross, and Double Down, among others. Kakonis is very much like Elmore Leonard (the early, lean, mean Elmore Leonard) in the same way that Chandler is like Hammett. Derivative, yeah, but he has more going on. I’ll tell you how good Kakonis is: two of these novels are about a pro card player. I hate playing cards. And Kakonis is my favorite new crime writer.

I think that Hammett fans especially will enjoy Criss Cross, which strikes me as Kakonis doing for our times a stripped-down and dirty version of The Maltese Falcon, with a fat man named Kasperson as in Casper (Gutman’s) son — a femme fatale flightier than Brigid O, and a beaten-down hero who makes Mrs. Spade’s boy seem definitely upbeat. Instead of a fabulous jeweled bird from the Crusades, they’re after an armored payroll truck. So, write this down: Tom Kakonis, the best hardboiled writer working today. And I said so.

Don Herron has led the famed Dashiell Hammett Tour in San Francisco since 1977 and is the author of Willeford, the widely-praised, must-read biography of cult crime writer Charles Willeford. And be sure to check out his terrific blog