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Onyx reviews: The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli

According to Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." People looking to read about happy families shouldn't turn to Tom Piccirilli. At the core of many of his works are serious unresolved issues between brothers, cousins, fathers and sons, sons and mothers, and just about every other possible permutation.

The Rand family is special, though. The men are, without exception, thieves, cheats and grifters. Have been for generations. Their house is filled with so many cubby holes and hiding places that no one is sure what riches might be stashed in it. Not all of it is valuable—some is pure kitsch. Things stolen on impulse that have absolutely no worth.

The Rands have another curious feature: the men are all named after breeds of dogs. Terry Rand, the book's protagonist, is actually Terrier, and his brother is Collie. This detail has no significance. It's just one of those quirky things that sets the story apart from others.

Collie Rand is the catalyst for The Last Kind Words, which is Piccirilli's first hardcover novel and the first book of a series. Terry Rand fled his Long Island home and its dead-end future five years ago, shortly after his brother was arrested for murdering several people during a spree. Among those Collie killed (and he doesn't deny his responsibility) was a nine-year-old girl. Collie has never explained what set him off—what made him get caught in the underneath, as Terry calls it. His execution date has been set for a few weeks hence and his appeals are exhausted.

At first, Terry doesn't know who tracked him down out west, where he has been working on a ranch. Collie wants Terry to do him a favor. Without understanding why, Terry responds to the summons and returns home, where he has a lot to answer for. He cut out on his parents and younger sister without warning or explanation and ditched his girlfriend, who had recently suffered a miscarriage. He carries a lot of guilt and a sizeable chip on his shoulder, but he got out of the Rand family business, at least, and has no intention of slipping back into old ways.

Few people believe him on that front, though. Not the local crime boss, who is one of Terry's old school pals, not his sister Dale's new boyfriend, and not Gilmore, the cop who is a near-constant presence at the Rand house. Sometimes he's there on business, but he's usually there because he likes the Rands and wishes he was part of the clan. Gilmore envies their carefree life and the tight family bond, which he never had. In many ways, he's as fascinating a character as Terry.

Piccirilli doesn't over-romanticize the Rands. They aren't simply lovable rogues. Sure, they're likable enough, but they are thieves. They break into people's houses and take their stuff rather than earning a legitimate living. They've spent time in jail for their sins, but they have no plans to rehabilitate. Even Terry's grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer's, can still pick a pocket when no one's looking. And Terry has no compunction about "creeping" someone's house. In fact, it seems like he's more comfortable breaking into a place than being invited in as a guest. Still, there is honor among crooks—the book's title comes from a telling piece of dialog where Terry reminds a snooty priest that the last kind words spoken to Jesus were uttered by a thief.

This isn't a whodunit, although there are mysteries. Collie claims that one of the people murdered the night of his spree was killed by someone else, part of an undetected series of related murders that continue to this day. Collie wants Terry to solve this murder—not because it will get Collie off death row or delay his execution but to save someone else's life. The cops aren't interested in Collie's story, and Terry has little reason to believe him, but he starts poking around, using his skills as a burglar to gain access to police files and the homes of people who might have information they aren't willing to share face-to-face. 

Whenever someone goes digging around in other people's lives, he's bound to turn up messy secrets, not all of them germane. Some mysteries are solved, but not all. More people die. Not every question has an easy answer—or any satisfactory answer at all. That's not the point of the book. Piccirilli is interested in exploring how Terry Rand reconnects with a past that has left him physically and morally scarred. His family welcomes him, but not unreservedly. His younger sister, now sixteen, is particularly reluctant to trust him not to run off again. He abandoned them all during an emotional crisis, the media circus surrounding the trial (and revitalized to cover the execution) and subsequently dealing with the fact that one of their own was capable of such a heinous crime. He abdicated his familial responsibilities and caused irreparable damage to many relationships. The fact this his uncles are showing signs that they may be facing the same illness as his Gramps also has him contemplating what the future might hold for him.

A book like this could be relentlessly bleak, and Piccirilli has demonstrated in the past that he's willing to put his characters through downward spirals from which there is no return. The Last Kind Words doesn't go to that extreme. Amidst bleakness there is levity and optimism. Terry takes his lumps and deals some of his own, but he struggles on behalf of his family and his own soul. He fights the good fight, imperfect as he is, and readers will go along with him as he opens doors (some locked, but not for long), uncertain about what he might find on the other side.

Undoubtedly there will be comparisons made to other contemporary crime writers—people like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane come to mind—but Piccirilli's work here stands on its own. He has a distinctive voice and a clear (if gritty) world view. If there is justice in the world, this book will be the breakout he richly deserves.

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