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The seventh novel in the Edgar®/Anthony nominated Hector Lassiter series

2008 Edgar® Nominee for Best First Novel

2008 Anthony Award Finalist

2011 Sélection du prix polar Saint-Maur En Poche

2008 Gumshoe Award nominee for Best First Novel

Head Games shortlisted for 2008 CrimeSpree Magazine award for Best First Novel

"One of the great American road novels."
   —Heirloom Books

"...this slick caper novel touches chords of myth, history, loss and redemption just enough so you can hear echoes faintly under the gunfire."

Read more praise here.

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In a dusty cantina on the far side of the Rio Grande, larger-than-life and recently widowed crime writer Hector Lassiter and Bud Fiske, a callow young poet sent by True Magazine to profile Hector, are handed a carpet bag. Inside they find the stolen head of Mexican general Francisco "Pancho" Villa—a long missing relic that may point the way to a fortune in lost treasure or a blood-and-thunder death...

In the dank, hallowed halls of Yale University creep the members of the Skull & Bones, a secret society shrouded in whispers. They are a fraternity whose members include media barons, über executives and politicians, including three generations of men called Bush—and their sanctum sanctorum's trophy cabinet is purportedly packed with the stolen bones of long-dead luminaries...

In a '57 Bel Air, Hector, Bud, and the beautiful Alicia tear through the desert with a trunk full of human heads. Caught in a crazy crossfire, they lead all manner of headhunters on a breakneck chase across Lost America. U.S. intelligence services, murderous frat boys, the soldier of fortune who stole Pancho's head from its grave, and the specter of a dead Mexican legend all want Villa's head—though they might settle for Hector's...

Read an excerpt here.

Check out the book group questions here.

  Order now!
Trade Paperback

Betimes Books trade paperback, February 2015: ISBN: 978-0992967451
Bleak House Books hardcover, September 2007: ISBN-10: 1932557423, ISBN-13: 978-1932557428
Bleak House Books trade paperback, September 2007: ISBN-10: 1932557431, ISBN-13: 978-1932557435

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"Blurring the lines between historical fact and fiction, Craig McDonald's triumphantly twisted first novel is one of the most unusual, and readable, crime-fiction releases to come along in years... Crime-fiction fans looking for an original voice should check out this exceptional debut, which blends Jack Kerouac's picaresque narrative style and James Ellroy's noir sensibilities with a heaping helping of urban legend, subtle social commentary and a trunkful of decapitated heads."

Selected as one of The San Francisco Chronicle's Top 10 crime books of the year: "Craig McDonald, a genuine expert on the history of crime fiction, gives free rein to all his obsessions in a debut novel that's a berserk 1957-based caper running roughshod through the politics and pop culture of the latter half of the 20th century. Strap in, hold on, enjoy the ride."

"Head Games is a gravel and mescal cocktail, a one-day burn, a novel of genuine piss and vinegar, the kind of book you thrust on people with the wild eyes and intent of a PCP freak. It's Tom Russell singing "Tonight We Ride" with a gut full of tequila and a loaded Colt. Craig McDonald knows the tough guy, has created one of the very finest, a pulp writer called Lassiter who knew Hemingway, Welles and Dietrich, and who I wish wasn't fucking fictional so I could hunt for his books. He spits in the eye of the pansy-ass authority hero that has glutted the crime market, reminiscent of Crumley at his best and with Ellroy's sick historical verve. Bottom line, McDonald's a talented bastard."
   —RAY BANKS, author of Saturday's Child

"A delirious blur of fact and fiction, of lies and truth... It's an epic ball-buster of a novel and I loved it...a hallucinogenic gonzo Western...wry and full of life and funny as hell, yet with a dark heart."

"Head Games is the rip-roaring, riotous, uproarious account of larger-than-life crime writer Hector Lassiter's wild and raucous trek to deliver the head of Pancho Villa to the highest bidder. Too many adjectives? Try adding boisterous, brawling and rambunctious, then you'll have an idea of what an over-the-top ride Head Games delivers. Part road trip, part buddy story, part shoot-em-up, Head Games is a fast-paced, fun read."

"Head Games is terrific, a real discovery, informed by—but never weighed down by—Craig McDonald's intimate knowledge of pulp fiction, politics, history, literature, film noir and all manner of frontiers. A truly original debut that leaves one eager to see what this writer will do next."
   —LAURA LIPPMAN, author of What the Dead Know

"Moves like a bullet, like a trajectory of magnificent artistry and line-on-line of almost casual, throwaway description. The beautiful, understated humor running like a sad song all through the whole novel...I'm beyond impressed."
   —KEN BRUEN, author of American Skin

"Reading Craig McDonald's Head Games was like reliving those wonderful and exciting, tequila-fired weekend border-town tours of my youth in the '50's. A different character, vivid and lively, waiting around every new corner of the artfully twisted plot. The time and place are captured perfectly, and story never falters as it dashes to the surprising ending. It made me homesick for El Paso the way it was."
   —JAMES CRUMLEY, author of The Last Good Kiss

"Few writers can blend a contemporary feel with what drew us to old-style pulp and original paperbacks: that momentum, that craziness, the thrill of the downhill slide and crash. Head Games is smart, it's funny, and it moves like a roach when the lights go on—what's not to love?"
   —JAMES SALLIS, author of Drive

"Head Games is fast, funny, furious, heart wrenching, real smart and totally unapologetic...a five-star page turning sizzler in a four-star world. Talk about nailing your debut...Head Games seals the deal and establishes McDonald as the new badass on the writing block. Kick back with a shot of Cuervo and a cold Tecate chaser. Enjoy the search for Pancho's missing head in this fast-paced thriller of lost and sorely missed Americana."
   —CHARLIE STELLA, author of Shakedown

"Head Games is contemporary noir at its finest. Prose that bites like a guillotine blade. A voice that sings in your skull. And in aging pulpster/adventurer Hector Lassiter, a hero who's the real deal—morally complex and damned funny."
   —ALLAN GUTHRIE, author of Hard Man

"A booze-soaked tribute to those great gonzo noir writers of days gone by."
   —ANTHONY NEIL SMITH, author of The Drummer

"Journalist and short story writer Craig McDonald creates a magical pulp-inspired debut that revolves around a fantastic premise. This book is a blast to read, and if you enjoy Loren Estlemen and James Carlos Blake, not to mention the history of the Hardboiled detective novel, you'll dig this."
   —PATRICK MILLIKIN, The Poisoned Pen

"Every now and then you run into a book that has it all: humor, a delightfully dark tone, a world-weary and larger-than-life protagonist and a wildly inventive storyline. Craig McDonald's Head Games is such a novel. A darkly humorous story, using a cast of real-life mid-century luminaries: Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Webb (of Dragnet fame) and a laconic Yale frat boy who goes by the name "George W." A book with a premise as unorthodox as this could easily dissolve into farce, but McDonald skillfully avoids that trap, crafting a clever and only slightly over-the-top slaughter-fest worthy of James Ellroy or James Crumley."
   —BRUCE TIERNEY, BOOKPAGE (chosen as September 2007 "Mystery of the Month")

"In McDonald's fun, deft debut, set mostly in 1957, Sen. Prescott Bush has sent out the call: bring me the head of Pancho Villa, the late Mexican revolutionary. Reminiscent of James Crumley's Milo Milodragovich PI novels...this slick caper novel touches chords of myth, history, loss and redemption just enough so you can hear echoes faintly under the gunfire."

"An exuberantly over-the-top romp conflating real events with legends... This one is simply great fun!"

"Offering the same array of nostalgic delights as Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, this is recommended for most public libraries."

"A turbulent tale of murder, conspiracy and political intrigue. McDonald's Spillane-like fictional debut has its roots in a real historical question: Did the Bush family really help hide Pancho Villa's head in the inner sanctum of Skull and Bones? Not for the faint-hearted."

"In his debut novel McDonald mixes history, legend, and fantastic characters to play the best kind of Head Games. Where has this guy been? The newest recipe for great fiction? One pulp novelist, one poet, two Hollywood legends, a secret society and a plot scored by Ennio Morricone. This is Head Games. Next book please, Mr. McDonald."

"A little history, a little social/political commentary, a little old fashioned road novel, and a lot of crazy plot, Craig McDonald's Head Games has it all. You've got to love it."

"Head Games is an ambitious novel...Not only is it an action-packed romp of a book but it made me think on larger themes and issues as well. It was an anticipated book for me that lived up to the expectations and wound up being exciting, funny and thought-provoking with a fantastic mix of real, historic and fictional characters."

"On the surface, Head Games sounds like an action-packed tale, and that would be a fair way to describe it, although it would short-change the book. This is one of those books where you soon realize that, while the author easily maintains the momentum throughout this adrenaline-charged story, it runs deeper. McDonald proves you can write a pacey narrative that still has fully developed, engaging characters. One of the best debuts of 2007."

"A clever noir romp through the landscape of 1957 America. Well-paced and quite compelling. This is an impressive debut."

"Mini-rant: McDonald wuz robbed of the Edgar for Best First. Head Games is a one-of-a-kind read, somewhere between Spillane-tough and Hemingway-macho and Chandler-mean but with a voice that's all Craig McDonald. The prose is pinpoint perfect, not lavish but every word counts (Hemingway would approve)."

Head Games was also featured in Library Journal's April 2007 survey of crime fiction.

"A new word needs to be coined for the kind of crime fiction McDonald writes. This isn't noir, it isn't PI, it sure as heck isn't cozy, praise be! It isn't the love child of any crime writer I can think of. How many ways can a reviewer say 'unique?' Count me as a fan."

"Yeah, I'm late catching up to this guy, but damned if this 1950's set tale of a crime writer carrying the head of a Mexican rebel in a bag across some kind of crazy road trip didn't set my pulse racing. There's a strange switch at a late stage in the novel which might divide some readers in the way the ending of No Country For Old Men did its audience, but for my money it's a bold move that more or less works exactly as intended. This McDonald guy is definitely one to keep your eye on."

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Head Games


"A beautiful surprise! An excellent surprise! ...This is like a movie by Peckinpah given a new treatment by Donald Westlake and filmed by the Coen brothers. The author masters the codes and the cliches of the genre and plays with them with a mocking majesty. From the beautiful Mexican girl to a pitiless killer, all the classical devices are there. But Mr. McDonald thwarts the compulsory figures. It's nuts, credible, non conformist. A 'noir' novel indeed; a Novel, most certainly."

"All at once an offhand road book a la Kerouac, a hallucinogenic western and a hard-boiled noir worthy of a James Crumley, Craig McDonald's epic crime novel displays his fine knowledge of the history of American 50s, mixing real and historical characters, larger than life. It's funny, dark, lively and smart."
   —LE TEMPS (Switzerland)

"For a first novel, it's a master stroke. You will bite into this with true exultation. The characters, both fictional and real, are superb, the dialogue's sparkling and the pace diabolic."
   —LIVRES HEBDO (France)

"With this macabre epic, all at once funny, moving and tragic, stirring with contagious and extravagant madness that Kipling himself wouldn't have denied, Craig McDonald transforms men's dirty lives, turning them into legends."

"A crime novel that is several heads above its competitors thanks to its hero, Hector, a writer built like a triceratops, who puts the same energy into fighting with Orson Wells as into shooting Mexican cops or laying Marlene Dietrich."
   —LE FIGARO (France)

"A superb, dark (crepuscular) crime novel."
   —LA TRIBUNE (France)

"Caramba! If the American thriller, certain of its superiority, is sometimes purring nicely, it isn't the case with La Tête de Pancho Villa. This book, the first by a certain Craig McDonald, is as reviving as a glassful of mescal. Devouring these incisive chapters that race like wild bulls towards a spicy ending, one thinks of Sam Peckinpah ("Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia") or James Crumley ("Border Snakes"). If the next novel by Craig McDonald is only half as good, we'll have to celebrate it!"
   —LE MATIN (Switzerland)

"James Ellroy + Kerouac + Coen brothers + Tarantino = Craig McDonald? This is the equation that we can suggest after having read his first novel, La Tête de Pancho Villa, the 'road movie' in which the main character, Marlene Dietrich's lover and Hemingway's friend, is entrusted with the skull of Pancho Villa with a mission of passing it along to a secret society of Yale University's students among which...a young George W.! Strangely, the CIA, the FBI, competing universities and various Mexican bandits are also coveting the precious relic. Skillfully mixing historic elements with totally 'off-the-rocker' fiction, Craig McDonald delivers an exuberant crime novel that brings us—aboard a 1957 Chevrolet—on a thrilling adventure where we'll meet a few colorful figures (But what is Orson Welles doing in this story? Well, he is shooting Touch of Evil, of course: we told you—it's 1957!)."
   —AMAZONFR September 2009 Titles Selection (France)

"Mixing literature and punches, reality and fiction, Craig McDonald (authors) one of the best crime novels of the Fall."

"With this first novel, Craig McDonald is cleverly mixing history and fiction in a wild adventure punctuated with encounters with Orson Welles, Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich."
   —LIBÉRATION (France)

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Craig recently put Head Games through Marshal Zeringue's popular PAGE 69 TEST which examines page 69 of a novel to see how representative that page is of the rest of the book. Read the results here.

Craig reads the OPENING CHAPTER of Head Games. Listen to the mp3 by clicking here.

The Scottish crime site Pulp Pusher launches a new feature called "Pushed for Answers" centered on essays regarding authors' ongoing characters. Read the first essay, featuring Head Games' Hector Lassiter, here.

Hector Lassiter's "Last Stand" presented here.

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French translation from Belfond
Russian translation from Arabesque