Book Review : Jim Wilsky & Frank Zafiro - Blood on Blood (2012)


He hated the view, almost as much as he'd hated having no view at all in his old cell. He hated the people out there in the world who could stop whatever they were doing and stare up at the sky and see the complete expanse of the sunset. He hated that it was beautiful. He hated that he knew it was beautiful, and that his life was such that he now had enough time to think and reflect and realize there was some beauty in the world. And then he hated that beauty.

A good thing about reading genres is that you know what to expect, more or less. Stories and characters will operate within set parameters, yet its up to the author as to whether it will be good or not. I didn't know either Jim Wilsky or Frank Zafiro before reading BLOOD ON BLOOD, but both its clear setting in the hardboiled genre and the Snubnose Press were enough for me to try it. I have to admit I am no fan of the cover, it would've probably turned me away from the paperback if I had seen it on a shelf (which is a rare err from SNP, by the way) But Wilsky and Zafiro's novel transcends any superficial hiccups it might have. It's classic hardboiled literature in its form, yet it has a strong identity, thanks to a strong characterization and a playful but self-conscious stance on genre-related clichés.

BLOOD ON BLOOD is a family story, first and foremost, about brothers Mick and Jerzy Sawyer and their father Gar, who is perhaps the most important character of the novel despite passing away from a terminal illness in the opening moments. Mick and Jerzy grew up with a criminal father and became two very different people. Mick took his distance with his troublesome family and became a cop for the city of Chicago for a short, ill-fated period. Jerzy is a straight up chip off the old block. He might even be worse than his old man. When Gar dies, he leaves his sons with an unlikely parting gift. Diamonds, still stashed from an old heist. Mick and Jerzy will set aside their difference to retrieve their only inheritance. Jerzy brings  a mysterious barmaid from his friend Patrik's bar in the loop and it quite complicates things.

What makes BLOOD ON BLOOD enjoyable is the strong, expertly crafted characterization by Jim Wilsky and Frank Zafiro. There are about a million good brother/bad brother novels, starting with Dickens, but none of those are quite like Mick and Jerzy. Mick is good, but he's got plenty of factors that make him "not THAT good", starting with expulsion from the police, his horrible relationships to women and terrible life decisions in general. Also, Jerzy isn't the classic "misunderstood bad boy" archetype who talks some thrash to convince himself that he is tough. He is really tough and has something rotten inside of him. He is for real. The seemingly peaceful relationship he has to Gar (he admires his dad) also adds a layer of interest to his personality. That strong, patient character building is what makes BLOOD ON BLOOD a novel about family first. There are about a million of diamond heist/treasure hunt novels, but none of those are quite so interwoven in family issues like BLOOD ON BLOOD.

I look up at the high ceiling and to some who might not know me, it probably looks like I'm praying. To be honest, they'd be right. I'm praying for this dentist appointment of a ceremony to be over.

Ducking clichés at the last second like this isn't easy and Wilsky and Zafiro do it with effortless cool. Hardboiled genre is just a framework they built their story around. Mick and Jerzy have absolutely nothing in common, except their hauntings. They both live in the shadow of their dad, they have no illusions about how bad their life is and they're both inexplainably drawn to Ania the barmaid. They are defined by their losses and longings, what makes them human and easy to empathize with. It's a straightforward, character-driven novel that explores the hard life on the dirty side of Chicago, through two characters linked by their dream of a better life. While I don't see it appealing to much people outside the hardboiled readers community, since it embraces the genre in all its glory, BLOOD ON BLOOD is fine craftsmanship and stalwart character-driven storytelling.



I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

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