By Josh Stallings

Polis/Agora Books

Pub date: 19-Jan-2021

book cover Tricky

AMBER LOVE 14-DEC-2020 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.

Publisher’s summary:

Does your past define you forever? That’s the question LAPD homicide detective Niels Madsen must answer after he gets in the middle of a standoff between two uniformed officers and Cisco, an intellectually disabled man. Cisco is found armed and standing over the body of a man with Down syndrome. Cisco swears the dead man was his good friend, and he didn’t hurt him, but in his earlier life, Cisco had been gang member, a brilliant and brutal killer. After he was badly beaten, brain injuries left him him—if he is to be believed—with the intellectual intelligence of a child. Madsen’s search for the truth leads him through the special needs community, East LA gang life, and pits him up against the corrupt LA Sheriff’s Department. More than a police procedural, Tricky explores questions of human nature: Whether a man can change, for better or worse, and whether redemption is possible.


There’s more to this novel than crime fiction and solving the mystery of who killed David Torres. For background let me explain: Josh and his wife Erika are the parents of two sons. One of them, Dylan, is a young man with special needs who has probably had a bunch of labels relating to his intellectual capacity or how he looks or communicates. The title of TRICKY came from Dylan. When his father takes shortcuts, he refers to it as going “the tricky way.” Not to mention, Josh is a writer with dyslexia who gets the most support from Erika. That combined with the growth in awareness about police violence and how disabled people are treated by them and the general public clearly have part of the roots in TRICKY.

Josh Stallings

Detective Niels Madsen is a grand Nord by blood and stature but lives the life of a cowboy (this much resembles the author) while working for the LAPD and caring for his grandfather Hem who suffers from dementia. TRICKY has action right out of the gate from page one. Madsen comes across a scene we’ve witnessed on the internet and news millions of times by now: police have guns raised and pointed at a person of color. There’s also a body already dead. I was hooked in chapter one and crying by chapter three.

Madsen battles his gut instinct which tells him that something is very wrong with the presentation of uniformed officers pointing guns at a Latino man covered in gang tattoos and holding a unique collectible handgun. Everything looks like Cisco Gutierrez is guilty of killing his supposed friend David. It takes Madsen’s gentle cowboy style to convince the officers not to shoot. Madsen approaches the victim and Cisco cautiously when he realizes a couple of important things that make this story worth telling more than others.

The victim, David Torres, is described as having flat features, a small nose, upward slant to his eyes which indicate Down Syndrome. David’s limited family members consisting of his mother and grandfather may seem loving and accepting of who David is as a person, but bigotry and bias are among his closest contacts. David and Cisco are best friends and roommates at a house for people with various special needs run by a woman named June Cleaver (yes, her name is acknowledged). LA happens to have something called a SMART team or mental evaluation unit. This is definitely something not available nationwide.

The cop shop has a diverse cast of people of non-Anglo surnames and backgrounds including Madsen’s brand new partner Kazim. A few need to be taught that the R-word is not used anymore including Madsen. LA’s overall makeup with it’s cultural neighborhoods and gang territories are explained colorfully. Grandpa Hem’s dementia clouds his reality that he’s still an active LA cop. No doubt living with him his entire life gave Madsen some notions about the patience needed to have Cisco around all the time. It’s still a learning curve. Cisco takes everything literally and prefers to stick to the rigid routine his caregiver June set up. Cisco doesn’t understand conversation littered with puns and colloquialisms. More diversity in the special needs community is shown by the other residents of the home too. Some like to laugh, one uses a wheelchair, and one only screams.

Idyllwild Nature Center
Idyllwild Nature Center by Josh Stallings


Author Josh Stallings shows how complicated this situation is. Even the gentle giant Madsen has to get physical in order to disarm the lead suspect who happens to be intellectually disabled. It makes Madsen lie as he continues to tell this poor man, Cisco, that his already faulty memories might not be right. Everything points to Cisco being the killer especially when the evidence of the bullet ballistics is conveniently tampered with so the bullets inside the victim can’t be tied to the antique gun nor to the cops on the scene.

Madsen grows more sympathy for Cisco with each chapter; yet, he wonders if someone so evil, a gangster who has done time for murdering a small child, could convincingly be faking this intellectual disability in order to be outside of a prison. By the third act, Madsen finally feels some inner peace that Cisco is not pretending about his memory or his capabilities. Once social worker Adair comes into the picture, Cisco ends up with multiple people who will do anything to keep him on the lam during the investigation.

The key groups ratcheting up the tension are the LA Sheriffs Department, LAPD, Corrections, and Riverside Sheriffs not to mention there’s always internal affairs lurking in the background. The real history of gangs/posses within law enforcement may surprise some readers. It’s more than what you’d see in a mob movie of a cop taking a bribe “for protection” each week to look the other way. There were actual gangs who would rob places and then get to investigate their own crimes setting up people they felt deserved it.

Madsen goes through the biggest growth in story arc. Stallings allows the cowboy to open his heart to people who go through life differently. He’s not shy about having a romantic life. He also knows that family is what you make it. Questions are answered in due time. What happened to Cisco that made him go from a derelict teenager to a gangster in adult prison to a disabled kind-hearted human being who couldn’t anyone?

Rating: 5 stars

five star rating

About the Author:

Josh Stallings’ Moses McGuire trilogy found itself on over fourteen best of the year lists, and YOUNG AMERICANS, a standalone, was nominated for the Lefty and Anthony awards. His short fiction has appeared in Beat To A Pulp, Protectors Anthology 1 and 2, Blood and Tacos, Crime Factory, and Murder-A-Go-Go. Born in Los Angeles, and raised by counter-culture activists (and sometime Quakers) in Northern California, he grew up undiagnosed dyslexic and spent some time as a petty criminal and failed actor before becoming a movie trailer editor. He, his wife, and various four legged fiends now live in the San Jacinto mountains. His latest novel, TRICKY, was written in honor of his son, Dylan, who is intellectually disabled.

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