"The Renegades," by T. Jefferson Parker
Monday, February 16, 2009
By T. Jefferson Parker
Dutton. 338 pp. $26.95
Last year the two-time Edgar winner T. Jefferson Parker published "L.A. Outlaws," his 15th novel and one of his best. It introduced glamorous Allison Murrieta, schoolteacher by day and Robin Hood-style thief by night. Allison fell in love with a sheriff's deputy named Charlie Hood, who was never sure whether he should arrest her or run away with her. When Parker's new "Renegades" arrived, I wished it would bring back the delightful Allison, but the new book belongs to Charlie. It's not as flamboyant a novel as "L.A. Outlaws," but it's a good one, in which Parker replaces his gossamer tale of a sexy thief with the ugly realities of police corruption and the multimillion-dollar Southern California drug trade. It should surprise no one that the two are closely related.
Charlie proved his courage as a soldier in Iraq, and now he's an outstanding deputy. He's tall, 29 years old and not bad-looking. Although he sometimes fears he's just a hick from Bakersfield, he's cool enough to drive an '86 Camaro IROC. We're told that he is "inexpert at reading the unspoken language of women," but he won Allison Murrieta's heart and wins that of a comely assistant district attorney in this book. His main role here, however, is to be an honest cop pitted against a psychopath named Draper, who has infiltrated the sheriff's office. This very dangerous man is earning a half-million dollars a year by driving a drug cartel's weekly profits from Los Angeles to the drug lord's Mexican fortress. Having a sheriff's deputy's ID makes it easy for Draper to cross the border with his hidden cargo of cash, and he's more than willing to kill anyone who might threaten his sweetheart deal.
At the outset, Charlie's partner is killed, execution-style, before his eyes, and he is drafted by Internal Affairs to find the shooter. This leads him into the life of the psychopathic deputy and his ties to the Mexican drug lord. Complicating matters, both Charlie and Draper are vying for the soul of Allison Murrieta's 17-year-old son, Bradley, who is brilliant, physically formidable and tempted by the lure of crime. He may have already killed a young gang member, but he has friends to swear he was home on the day in question.
There's plenty of violence in this novel, but it's most interesting for the subtlety of Parker's characterizations and the ambiguity of many of the relationships he explores. Bradley is an example. We see a good deal of him, yet we finish the novel not sure if in a few years he'll be a fine sheriff's deputy, as Charlie hopes, or a master criminal, as the psychopath intends.
Draper is also well drawn. Other deputies mostly see him as a manly, dependable fellow, although a few are suspicious of him. He divides his time between two young women "of great outward beauty and physical health that disguised serious inner damage." These women can't imagine the truth: that he treats them so lovingly because that's the easiest way to control them, and that he'd casually kill them if that suited his needs. Draper has "spent his entire life staying close enough to people to influence them but far enough away to remain unknown." When Charlie grasps the evil in this man, Draper's response is pure hate: "For the first time in his life he truly wanted to kill somebody, rather than simply seeing that it was the easiest and most practical thing to do."
Parker offers vivid scenes that involve pit bulls in combat, deep-sea fishing with a drug lord and life in a hospital for the criminally insane, and at one point he has Charlie visit L.A.'s skid row on a Sunday morning:
"To Hood this was the worst of L.A., a twenty-four-seven bazaar of drug use and narcotics deals and prostitution, often conducted in Porta Potties set up for the homeless, who gathered here for services. He knew it was one of the only places in Southern California where rival gangs could be found buying and selling drugs side by side, violence suspended for the fast dollars. There was heroin on Broadway, crack on Fifth at Crocker or Main. Addicts, dealers, hookers, hustlers, gangsters, the homeless, the hopeless, the insane. All here, thought Hood, the Devil's arcade. Or a fifty-square-block party, if your idea of a party is crack and sex in a Porta Potti."
Parker is an interesting and inventive writer. There's a nice detachment in his portrait of Los Angeles: It's often hell on earth, but he views it with affection and a hint of humor. Because he's unwilling to be locked into a series, Parker glides from novel to novel, usually taking us in unexpected new directions. If you're interested in the best of today's crime fiction, he's someone you should read.