Monday, January 31, 2011

Iron River - T. Jefferson Parker

Iron River
A Charlie Hood Novel
T. Jefferson Parker
NAL/New American Library


The term ‘iron river’ refers to the apparently never-ending “great current of firearms headed south.” As the drug traffickers and cartels become more bold and ruthless, the need for guns only increases. The US is full of cheap guns, and more than a few dealers are willing to sell to anyone for a profit.

Charlie Hood is on loan from the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to an ATFE group trying to stem the tide. Even members of the operation know that a few buy-and-busts won’t make a dent. The idea is to arrest the low guys on the totem pole and turn them against the people above them. Eventually, they hope to land a really big fish.

Before that can happen, though, a normal buy turns into a shootout in Buenavista, a border town. One of the bad guys goes down, but so does an innocent bystander, a teenaged boy. This teenaged boy happens to be the son of the leaders of a major cartel. Obviously, his father is going to want vengeance. To everyone’s shock, the rules have clearly changed: the cartel members came across the border and grabbed the agent from American soil, then transported him back to Mexico. This is a diplomatic nightmare. It’s also the first step for the group of ATFE agents (including Charlie Hood) on a shadowy path.

The original buy was part of a planned escalation. Someone is planning to provide a large number of American guns to drug cartels. It may be true that the criminal world in any given area is fairly small, but Charlie is shocked and disheartened to discover just how small it really is. Then there’s the mystery of one Mike Finnegan, hit by a car along a desert road while changing a tire, head injuries, multiple bone fractures, a miracle of survival. He has $90,000 in an unlocked tool chest in the bed of his truck; Charlie Hood’s name and current P.O. Box in his wallet; and speaks vividly about sharing a drink with Wyatt Earp and watching sunsets with Manson. His daughter, who may or may not be trustworthy, claims that Mike is a paranoid schizophrenic. Maybe it’s just the head injury. Whatever the case, it looks like all roads lead to Charlie Hood.

Being in law enforcement cannot be easy in the best of times. These are far from the best of times. A friend today could be working for your enemy tomorrow. Or maybe that friend has been working for the enemy for years. Alliances are shifting and murky. The soul of even a killer can be compared to the desert environment that surrounds the characters: from a distance, it looks dry and empty; but up close, there’s life and complication, and possibly even beauty to be found. Charlie Hood’s moral compass provides the true north here. Even when sorely tested, his personal imperative is to do the right thing, even when those things are not formally codified.

This is my second Charlie Hood novel (after THE RENEGADES) and I forgot what to expect. These are not written as procedurals or straight clue-to-clue-to-clue-to-killer mysteries. There are so many layers to what’s going on that I find myself slowing down; going back and re-reading sections to pick up some word or phrase I might have missed the first time. For all its complication and multiple stories, the pace is surprisingly fast. The tension is established in the first pages and only grows throughout the novel. There’s an overriding feeling of darkness and despair that’s just held back by force of will. These books are gems and should be read by anyone with an interest in well-written, realistic crime fiction.

Rating: 8 ½
January 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23242-7 (trade paperback)


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