Have you ever suspected that devils walk among us, insidious creatures who pretend to be as benevolent as you or I, but who in truth exist to inject chaos into our world? I cannot doubt that such demons exist. At least one now sits on our Supreme Court, another was our president not so long ago, and countless others scurry about our fair city legislating and lobbying for their nefarious agendas. Of course, you and I may not agree on which ones are the devils; thus do they cloud our minds, or at least yours.
These reflections are inspired by T. Jefferson Parker’s new novel, “The Famous and the Dead,” which features numerous devils in its cast of characters, along with the thugs, drug lords and crooked cops who are native to the genre. Parker, the winner of three Edgar awards for crime fiction, again delivers a tale that is not only well-plotted and suspenseful, but subtle, surprising and endearingly perverse.
This is the sixth and last of his novels about the Los Angeles County lawman Charlie Hood. In the first book, “L.A. Outlaws,” Charlie fell in love with a gorgeous schoolteacher who had a secret life as a latter-day Robin Hood. She died at the end of the story, whereupon Charlie befriended her troubled teenage son, Bradley, who in time became a lawman. In this novel, 22-year-old Bradley is a corrupt cop who has made a fortune helping Mexican drug lords smuggle their goods into the United States.
Honest Charlie, meanwhile, has been assigned to the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives. He’s now in San Diego, pursuing some Kentucky lowlifes who came to California to deal in guns and soon advanced to selling Stinger missiles to the Mexican cartels. Charlie becomes the scapegoat of a “Fast and Furious”-style scandal in which a thousand automatic weapons reach Mexico, and one of them is used to assassinate a U.S. congressman.
All this, though expertly told, is the conventional part of the novel. The more interesting part, underlying everything else, concerns devils and angels. The chief devil, who has figured in the earlier Hood novels, is Mike Finnegan, a short, stout, powerful man with red hair and freckled hands who purports to deal in bathroom products but in fact deals in souls, although he would say he simply enters into partnerships. He wants to make Bradley his partner, but even more he wants to seize control of Bradley’s unborn son. Bradley, for all his sins, loves his wife and child and struggles to save them from Mike.
Mike has many irons in the fire. He corrupted the government of an entire California town because that’s what devils do and politicians are such easy prey. As Mike explains it, he and his fellow devils are much like those Milton presented, far more solemnly, in “Paradise Lost.” That is, they claim to be in rebellion against a dictatorial God in order to bring freedom to humankind.
“We who work for the Prince know that our best tool is chaos,” he explains, “but our goal for you is not chaos at all, but choice.” Asked whether he’s a devil, Mike replies: “We rarely use that word, but yes. I’m one of many. And there are angels, too, and they have us outnumbered roughly ten to one.”
We meet an angel named Beatrice, whom Mike has kept prisoner for 96 years at the bottom of a mine shaft (she’s been praying a lot), but whom Bradley rescues. Beatrice is a sweetheart once she’s regained her strength — 96 years in a mine shaft is hard even on an angel — and she gladly adds her angelic powers to Charlie’s campaign to put Mike out of business.
Parker has plenty of fun with this story, but he’s serious, too. Where is the line between flesh-and-blood criminality and evil of supernatural origin? He complicates the debate by having Charlie’s wife, a doctor who’s an atheist, reject all talk of heaven and hell: “These are stories we’ve told ourselves to answer the fear and mysteries of death.”
It’s an old question: Can we sinners offer that beloved defense, “The devil made me do it”? Or are some of us simply born no damn good? The debate rages on, but Parker lets the angels triumph, at least for a while.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE FAMOUS AND THE DEAD
By T. Jefferson Parker
Dutton. 371 pp. $26.95