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'At Their Own Game' by Frank Zafiro a suspenseful descent into darkness

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'At Their Own Game' by Frank Zafiro

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On his website, local crime fiction author Frank Zafiro described his novel "At Their Own Game" as a "a hard boiled mystery set in Spokane."

That description is accurate, but what may really make the novel compelling for some readers is the narration by Zafiro's protagonist Jake Stankovic. Jake is a small-time criminal operating quietly in the Spokane area with help from his associates Matt and Brent. He stubbornly insists at several points in the story that he is "not a bad guy", but he is clearly lying to the reader and possibly himself as he gradually discovers that he is ruthless enough to do whatever it takes to defeat enemies on both sides of the law.

Readers will be cheering for Jake as he uses his wits to outsmart a police detective with a grudge named Kyle Falkner and tries to avoid being killed by a local drug dealer named Ozzy. One could argue that they shouldn't be on Jake's side because he is basically the blue collar Spokanite version of Donald Westlake's Parker. Jake has no problem lying his way out of trouble, or taking advantage of legal loopholes, or resorting to violence if that becomes necessary.

Jake is really not a good guy in spite of his protests. However, Zafiro made him extremely likeable and compelling as a protagonist almost in spite of himself. It is easy to be on Jake's side even as he does terrible things to achieve his goals. It helps that the story is told from his point of view, but it has more to do with the thought Zafiro put into examining a character who descends into darkness in a manner somewhat similar to Walter White from the critically acclaimed series "Breaking Bad."

Fans of Zafiro's River City novels and short stories will appreciate the way that Jake, a former patrol officer with the Spokane Police Department, is able to use legal precedents and procedural details to thwart Falkner's attempts to bring him to justice. He is able to beat Falkner, as the book's title suggests, at his own game because Jake learned enough while he was a police officer to anticipate some of Falkner's moves and counter them in unexpected ways.

The antagonism between Jake and Falkner adds interesting layers to the story while creating more dramatic tension. Falkner hates Jake partly because Jake had an affair with his ex-wife Helen. Jake hates Falkner mostly because Falkner is a jerk who stoops to harassing him in various ways during the investigation. This helps make Falkner seem like the book's villain even though he has the moral and legal high ground.

In an odd way, Jake and Falkner start seeming a little bit like two sides of the same coin. Under different circumstances, they could be allies and possibly even friends. For that matter, there could easily be an alternate version of "At Their Own Game" where Falkner is a sympathetic character who sometimes fudges a few ethical guidelines while trying to catch drug dealers.

Unfortunately for Falkner, things didn't work that way in Zafiro's novel. He comes across as an archnemesis who must be crushed. Readers will be rooting for Jake every time the two confront each other, even though an argument could be made that they probably shouldn't. That makes for fascinating reading.

At one point early in the novel, Helen shows up at Jake's house and the two rekindle their old relationship. Falkner's jealousy and resentment toward Helen and the verbal abuse he inflicts on her go a long way toward making him seem like more of a bad guy than Jake--the character who readily admits that he and his crew wanted to sell crystal meth because they weren't making as much money as they used to by dealing in stolen goods. Attentive readers may find themselves pondering what being a bad guy really means even as they hope that Jake wins.

The drug dealer Ozzy presents a different kind of threat and a different kind of contrast with Jake. Ozzy is pure evil and he employs violent henchmen to do his bidding. Compared to Ozzy, Jake and his crew don't seem so bad. It becomes easier to see why Jake sees himself as the good guy in the story considering that his own illegal activities, in theory at least, don't really hurt anybody. But is that enough to really make him "not a bad guy" or is he simply trying to rationalize things he knows are wrong to himself?

An important subplot helps illuminate the moral and ethical conflicts in the novel. Jake becomes convinced early in the novel that either Matt or Brent is a traitor, because his enemies suddenly know a lot more about his criminal activities. Matt is the obvious candidate, because he got arrested on an assault charge shortly before the beginning of the story. Jake isn't certain though, so he uses an elaborate plot to figure out which one is informing on him.

These parts of the novel are compelling and highly suspenseful reading just at face value, but if readers start to consider what they learn about Jake in the process there are deeper moral and ethical issues to consider. On one level, Jake should find the traitor and deal with him effectively for the sake of the narrative. On another level, this is really a terrible thing because Jake is treating his closest friends like they're his enemies and dealing with them that way while hoping they don't notice. This leads to one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, but the implications are still grim.

Crime fiction readers will appreciate "At Their Own Game" because there is a strong mystery at the heart of it and lots of entertaining twists and turns along the way to keep readers on the edges of their seats. That would be enough to justify reading the book. However, the implications of Jake's actions force the reader to think about important moral issues in a way that elevates the story beyond just an entertaining caper story to being a profound examination of good, evil, betrayal, revenge and many other things that have been central to human existence since the dawn of history.

At Their Own Game" is available now as an Amazon Kindle ebook for $4.99. Zafiro plans to publish it in paperback and as an unabridged audiobook soon as well.

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