Book review: Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

Set in 1979 in the savage, seedy bars and back alleys of Vancouver’s fearsome Eastside, Zero Avenue is a tough, edgy crime novel focused on a female singer’s struggle to stop being the dope-running girlfriend of a powerful drug dealer and position her band to ride the wave of the emerging punk music scene.

This is the fifth novel by Canadian crime fiction writer Dietrich Kalteis whose debut novel Ride the Lightning won an Independent Publisher Book Award in 2015. Before writing novels, Kalteis was a finalist in the Los Angeles Screenplay Festival and his short stories were widely published in a variety of familiar literary venues, including the magazine Lowestoft Chronicle.

Littered with references to the sounds and significant singers of the era, his newest work explores the harsh, gritty life of hopeful musicians trying to achieve their ambitions but caught up in the world of gangland violence where theft, bloodshed and drug trafficking are a part of their everyday lives.

Frankie Del Rey, singer and guitarist with small-time band Waves of Nausea, is front and centre in this hard-hitting, high-energy story. Tough and resilient, she lives in an area of Vancouver where chicks carry knives, punks travel in groups for safety, winos are beaten for pocket change, and an old age pensioner is ‘robbed of his dentures.’

She works as a drug mule for Marty Sayles, a drug lord with a massive pot-growing operation in a dozen fields dotted along Fraser Valley, and makes her living by regularly running his dope over the border into the USA.

Marty’s operation entails patching weed in the cornfields of local farmers, then silencing them with threats of violence and arson unless they turn a blind eye to his activities. His ‘distribution centre,’ tended by his odious, gun-toting underlings Sticky and Tucker, is an isolated farmhouse and barn off Zero Avenue, a farm road running straight along the US border.

As a perk, Frankie and her band members, bass player Arnie Binz and drummer Joey Thunder, are allowed to practise their music in the barn.

With ambitions to become a major recording artist, Frankie sets her sights on landing a gig at the ‘rat-trap’ music club Falco’s Nest, a popular hangout for ‘under age kids in torn denim and leather and newbie punk acts keen for a break.’ The struggling owner, Johnny Falco, is keen to help put ‘punk on the Vancouver map, shaking that No Fun City image and making a buck at the same time,’ and he does more than put Frankie on the bill. He also begins an affair with her.

After learning from Frankie about the locations of Marty’s pot fields, Johnny decides to raid one them to help pay off his debts.

When his part-time employee, Frankie’s band member Arnie Binz, heads out to steal some of Marty’s pot for himself, the story takes a vicious, momentous turn, culminating in a fast and furious blood-spattered finale.

Kalteis, who is rapidly becoming one of Canada’s top modern crime writers, follows his previous successes with another snarling, fist-swinging, gangland drug tale that is bristling with ambition, desire, hate and brutality. This one is made all the better by its raging hot, kick-ass front woman, who likes to party hard, fight hard and bring the house down.

(ECW Press, paperback, £11.95)

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