The Lady Is a Scamp
Monday, February 4, 2008
By T. Jefferson Parker
Dutton. 372 pp. $25.95
T.Jefferson Parker's terrific "L.A. Outlaws" introduces one of the most enticing heroines in recent American crime fiction. Her name is Suzanne Jones, and she leads a double life. Most of the time, 32-year-old Suzanne is an eighth-grade history teacher and loving mother. It's true that her domestic life is a bit unusual -- she's had three sons by three men -- but she's living a mostly quiet life with her boys and her current fellow. Now and then, however, she dons a mask and a wig and is reborn as Allison Murrieta, a sexy, sassy armed robber who has become a Los Angeles media sensation as a latter-day Robin Hood who robs the rich and greedy and divides the loot with charities of her choice.
Why this dangerous pastime? Allison has modeled herself on her ancestor, the legendary California outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, who "stole the best horses and robbed rich Anglos at gunpoint" until the Anglos caught him and cut off his head. As Suzanne explains, "I got Joaquin Murrieta's good looks. I got his courage and sense of justice for the poor. I got his contempt for the rich and powerful. I got his love of seduction. Like Joaquin used to, I love a good, clean armed robbery. I steal beautiful cars instead of beautiful horses." Actually, Suzanne has two criminal pursuits. Besides stealing expensive cars, she robs fast-food outlets. She does this because customers take her picture and she loves the publicity, and also because she hated her boss when she worked in a Burger King at 14.
Suzanne's troubles begin when she ventures into a more lethal crime scene. Ten men are killed in a shootout when a diamond deal goes bad. Suzanne arrives in time to make off with diamonds worth $450,000, but she also encounters two men who will be her co-stars for the rest of the novel. L.A. Sheriff's Deputy Charlie Hood stops her for speeding away from the crime scene. She talks her way out of trouble, but she likes his looks and the two become lovers. (The first time she lures him into bed, "It was like two tornadoes competing for the same trailer park.") The complication is that straight-arrow Charlie starts to suspect that Suzanne is Allison. He can't prove it, but he'd rather arrest her than see her killed in one of her risky robberies.
The other man she encounters is a stone-cold killer named Lupercio, whose mission is to recover the diamonds. He's a tiny man from El Salvador whose weapon of choice is a razor-sharp machete. He's a relentless killer, like the one in "No Country for Old Men," and scenes in which he savages men with his machete are chilling. Given these three determined characters, Parker tantalizes us for the rest of the novel: Can Charlie save Suzanne from Lupercio? Will Charlie arrest Suzanne? Might she give up her life of crime? Might they run off together? Or might she, as Charlie fears, get herself killed by persisting as a desperado?
Clearly, this is not kitchen-sink realism. Allison is a fantasy, for both Suzanne and the reader, and this is a Hollywood tale, perhaps a movie-to-be. And yet it works so well because Parker does so much to ground it in reality. He knows all about crooked cops and stolen diamonds and how expensive stolen cars are sent abroad for sale. Charlie is not some good-looking goof; he's back from two tours as a military policeman in Iraq and haunted by his inability to prove the murder of several Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. Even Lupercio, the killer, has his reasons: He came of age during the civil war in El Salvador, "witness to the disappeared, finder of loved ones' bodies in the human piles of Puerta del Diablo." Suzanne's dangerous ways are not so easily explained. She inherited melodrama from her actress mother. She's caught up in her ancestor's mythology and is in love with her celebrity, maybe a little crazed by it. She's also fiercely independent, as when she lays down the law to Charlie: "Here's the deal: I'm not easy and I'm not property. I'm not up to you, I'm up to me." She lives that philosophy; the question is whether she'll die for it. We don't want her to, any more than Charlie does, but she's a headstrong lady.
Parker is hardly unknown. This is his 15th novel, and he's one of three writers -- Dick Francis and James Lee Burke are the others -- to have twice won the Edgar Award for best crime novel of the year. Still, he's never achieved quite the recognition he deserves and this could be his breakthrough. All his skills are on display here: vivid writing, strong characters, clockwork plotting, agonizing suspense and, finally, an ending that manages to be just right. "L.A. Outlaws" is popular entertainment at its most delicious.