Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Morning Reading: Rutten on Parker

In today's Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten reviews the new T. Jefferson Parker novel, Iron River.

"If the murderers of the gifted young El Monte educator and public official Bobby Salcedo ever are brought to justice, we're likely to find that the weapons used to kill him and five other men kidnapped from a bar in the drug-ravaged Mexican city of Gomez Palacio were purchased in the United States.

The fraught complexities behind that tragedy -- and thousands like it -- form the backdrop and, more important, the animating moral disquiet for T. Jefferson Parker's terrific new book, "Iron River: A Charlie Hood Novel." Iron River is a metaphor for the chain of gun shops and dealers that runs along the U.S.-Mexican border from Tijuana to Corpus Christi, Texas. They serve as the headwaters for the torrent of military and civilian firearms that continue to flow from the United States into Mexico, where they're employed by drug-dealing cartels in what has become the narcos' war on that country's civil society. The money the gangsters use to purchase weapons illegally in Mexico comes from the proceeds of drugs illicitly smuggled into the United States. More weapons allow the rival cartels to operate with greater impunity across wider territories, which permits them to ship more drugs north of the border, which generates more cash, which makes possible the purchase of more and deadlier guns.

Not since the infamous triangle of sugar, rum and slaves that dominated the 18th century Caribbean has the New World seen quite so vicious an economic circle. Salcedo and his companions were casualties in a civil conflict that has killed at least 15,000 Mexicans over the last three years, a level of violence not seen in the nearly 90 years since the Cristero Wars.

As the aging Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz mused a century ago, his nation's great misfortune was to be located "so far from God and so near the United States."

Great detective fiction incorporates topicality, character and plot. When all three are present in equal measure, as they surely are in "Iron River," it's a reading experience that adds up to something more than engaging entertainment. (The timeliness of this novel is suggested by the fact that the author acknowledges, among others, the Times reporters who produced the paper's remarkable "Mexico Under Siege" series.)

Parker, like his formidable contemporaries Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, is a master in a remarkable generation of Los Angeles-centered detective novelists. (Had he not abandoned his Easy Rollins series, Walter Mosley certainly would be numbered in their company.) Parker, who grew up, went to school and worked as a reporter in Orange County, is particularly notable for his precise ability to evoke the Southern California sense of place beyond urban Los Angeles. He also has a remarkable gift for engaging characterization and layered plotting that, while realistic in its factual ambiguity, is never without a moral frame of reference..."

To read the rest, BUY THE NEWSPAPER (!) or, (sigh), click here.

Parker appears this Saturday at Book Carnival in Tustin (see the sidebar) and later this month in Corona del Mar as part of the Pen on Fire series.

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