In an era of global terrorism, saving California's endangered abalone might not seem like the highest of priorities, and Lt. John Marquez -- head of a special operations unit of the state's Department of Fish and Game -- knows it.
"A faction of the public had grown weary of trying to save species, of competing with animals for space and the right to make a living," he thinks as he prepares to confront a bereaved Vietnamese poacher whose teenage son has drowned and who has a freezer full of illegal abalone.
But Marquez also knows that the particular band of abalone poachers he's after now -- people who have already killed a couple of times and will continue to escalate the body count -- are not just a "handful of former commercial divers disgruntled with DFG regulations, scheming to get rich."
These villains are more like the vicious band, headed by a vindictive Irish psychopath named Kline, that wiped out Marquez's team when he was with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration a few years back.
A large part of the considerable strength of Kirk Russell's first mystery novel (along with his clear and pungent writing, especially about the primal weirdness of life along the Mendocino coast) comes from the way he makes us quickly believe in Marquez and his cause -- mostly by letting us watch as the Fish and Gamers get frustrated, pushed around and generally shut out by the FBI and local police agencies. One of Marquez's bosses points out that the country's "post 9/11 gear-up" is a lot like the way the FBI responded to the Cold War communist threat of the 1950s: "They spent a lot of money and threw a lot of agents at the problem and our enemies just adapted."
Marquez, of course, isn't about to sit back and suck up the punishment, but he has to be extra careful -- especially with a newly pregnant team partner, a wife wondering whether to go on with their shaky marriage, and the scary Kline floating around out there, holding on tight to an old grudge. -Chicago Tribune
"You know as you read this one that you are on to something good. Kirk Russell comes out of the gate with a story brimming with fresh characters and artful prose. Shell Games announces the start of what I think will be a great career." -Michael Connelly
"Excellent...a compelling plot, fully realized characters, white-knuckle suspense, and unusual yet accessible settings. What truly sets it apart, though, is Kirk Russell's vigorous, lovely, unadorned prose. Shell Games marks the debut of a substantial new talent in crime fiction." -John Lescroart
"Shell Games integrates spellbinding suspense into a wonderfully unpredictable plot that holds the reader hostage to the very last page." -Ridley Pearson
"Compelling characters, unrelenting suspense, and vivid settings all add up to a great read. Kirk Russell's Shell Games is so well-crafted, it's hard to believe it's a first novel." -Jan Burke
In recent years, mystery writers seem to have entered a secret contest to see who could come up with the best variant on the traditional detective heroes: cops or ex-cops (usually wounded or traumatized) turned private eyes. Russell should walk off with the award for far and away the most inventive new detective hero-an ex-DEA agent who now heads a covert special operations unit of the California Department of Fish and Game. Lieutenant Marquez's job is to protect wildlife, but two discoveries-a slew of empty abalone shells and the bodies of two murdered divers--propel Marquez back into his narc-fighting days. Behind the empty shells and the slain divers is a drug runner making big money smuggling abalone. The plot moves, credibly and intriguingly, from Marquez's bewildering discovery to a fight for his own life as the drug lord hunts him down. A first-rate start to a projected series. -Booklist
A special squad of undercover endangered-species investigators goes after poachers and ends up taking on a nightmarish international killer and the FBI. Lt. John Marquez, head of the California Fish & Game Department's Special Operations Unit, stumbles upon a grisly torture-murder while investigating a multimillion-dollar abalone poaching operation. Something stinks, and it's not bad shellfish. Ex-DEA agent Marquez can't help but notice the similarities between this torture killing and the darkest moment from his fed dope-sleuth period in Mexico. His nemesis, the man who took out his entire DEA crew and said he'd get him later, is back. The local homicide investigator and FBI don't want Marquez poking into the case. Meanwhile, he has much of the detective genre's DNA: he's moody, struggles with his demons by night, his ex-DEA undercover bio subs for the usual Vietnam vet resume, and though he's not divorced, his marriage is on the rocks thanks to the old struggle between the job and the family. Throw in a few more flashbacks and he'd fit right in at James Lee Burke's Robicheaux Dock & Bait Shop in Louisiana. But to first-novelist Russell's credit, Marquez doesn't chase Scotch with jazz or slam his badge and gun on the boss's desk. This is not a cliche fest. The story is loaded with atmosphere, as the SOU team races through clogged California traffic up and down the moody coast from Fort Bragg to San Francisco. It's also made unselfconsciously relevant with timely references, such as contrasting the mortally wounded California state budget and the whatever-it-takes blank check given federal agencies in the name of post-9/11 national security. The SOU crew includes a variety of believable characters, not a one from central casting. The bad guys are as colorful as Elmore Leonard's cast of wise guys, but with ex-hippie and surfer dudes subbing for Leonard's thugs and made men. Russell could, and should, take Marquez and this crew out again. -Kirkus
"With his first novel, Kirk Russell drops readers directly into the action on the craggy North Coast, carving a new niche in crime writing with an environmental edge...Once hooked by Shell Games, readers may find themselves wanting to buy this guy Marquez a drink just to keep him talking." -San Francisco Chronicle