(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in
The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Tod Goldberg’s latest novel, Gangsterland.)
Louisville, Kentucky, is a tough old town. Wedged between the Ohio River and the outskirts of Appalachia, it’s a “city of enterprise, criminal and otherwise.” The side of the tracks where narrator Jon Catlett resides — in Jonathan Ashley’s debut crime novel, The Cost of Doing Business (280 Steps) — is a slim strip of bohemia; but beneath the restaurants and trendy shops there’s grit and a dog with plenty of fight. Catlett isn’t a bad type; he’s a bit of a cynic who owns a used book shop, so you know he’s a thinker; he has girlfriend problems and mounting bills, so he’s kind of a regular Joe; but what makes him different is the 800-pound gorilla of a heroin problem on his back.
His life is aimless and he’ll be the first to admit it. Yet he scrapes along, selling a few books, hosting hip concerts in his “posh, quasi-Gertrude Stein-esque salon disguised as a bookstore” for “the painfully predictable who stood for nothing,” doing small-time dope deals and getting high. Funny thing is, heroin is the biggest impediment in his life, but it also turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. When the “arbitrary nature of fate sideswiped me,” as Jon says in one of his many pithy and homespun, poetic observations worthy of Daniel Woodrell or Matthew McBride, his
life’s work is revealed — and all it took was a murder.
Even though it’s an accident, Jon’s killing of an annoying trust-fund junkie begins his elevation, along with sidekick Paul, from “part-time middle man to straight up dope kingpin.” Jon faces his change of life with equanimity, focus and a willingness to be mentored by corrupt cops and mobsters who’ve been to the rodeo many times. Best of all, he discovers he has a knack for the logistics of setting up and implementing drug deals. He’s making lots of money, too, so much that his addiction takes a back seat. The lessons Jon learns as he rises to the challenges of literally plotting and shooting his way to the top of the supply chain are laconic and wise. You don’t read Ashley’s work for the plotting or the action; it’s all been done before. You read it for the wry rural bard in Jon; and as a self-observant realist he pulls no punches, even from behind the veil of lies that is part of any addiction. “I acted like I’d only entered the dope game out of necessity,” he says. “Who am I kidding, though, I knew even then that the reason this recent detox had been so
manageable was because a new addiction had begun to enter my life, power.” Things get better and better with every dead dope dealer he and his cohorts leave in their path as they make their way to Chicago and the Russian mob. Shooting people, a risk that invites unwanted scrutiny, is just part of the game that everyone involved accepts.
Calling the shots after getting rid of a blackmailing cop who discovered the trust-fund junkie’s murder is Louisville detective “Mad Dog” Mike Milligan. Milligan shows Jon that the first and foremost rule to surviving as a successful drug dealer, from the street corner to what passes as the corner office, is beating your newest business partner to the double cross. Jon and his motley crew of homeboys and misfits plot and eventually ally with Luther Longmire, a Kentucky gangster who happens to be carrying on a hot and heavy affair with his leggy first cousin Amara. Jon has been having an on-again, off-again affair with a wealthy and recovering addict whose presence is barely felt in the book, but when Amara enters, Jon is hooked. Amara is trouble and Jon knows it, but he can’t help himself. “It seemed that all Amara truly feared,” he thinks, “was boredom.” They bond over the poetry of William Butler Yeats, but Amara doesn’t let a libidinous fling get in the way of blood kin or business.
There’s an OK Corral in The Cost of Doing Business, and Luther and Amara and anyone else foolish enough to enter with Jon and Mad Dog are forced to pay the cost of doing business. ◊