Book World reviews 'Iron River' by T. Jefferson Parker

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By Richard Lipez
Saturday, January 23, 2010


By T. Jefferson Parker

Dutton. 371 pp. $26.95

A fair-minded man, T. Jefferson Parker gives Second Amendment zealots a full voice in this artful and frightening thriller about gun trafficking on America's southern border. Newshounds know that the Mexican drug-cartel violence spilling over into Texas, California and Arizona -- assassinations, large-scale home invasions -- is carried out with firearms made and sold in the United States, usually legally. Thousands of Mexicans have died at the hands of the cartels, many of them judges and law enforcement officials, some women and children. A typical American gun dealer in "Iron River" refuses to accept any blame, however: "I sell a legal product for self-defense," one says. "I sell to people who pass the background and have legal ID. I can't control what happens later. . . . Those animals down there are the killing machines, not the guns. Not me." Parker reports that about 6,700 U.S. gun dealers ply their trade along the 2,000-mile Mexican border, and the result is bloodshed on a spectacular scale.

Parker's protagonist, Charlie Hood, is working frantically to rescue a young ATF agent kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord. A Mexican police sergeant puts the drug/gun situation into perspective. Raydel Luna tells Hood: "My country is being torn apart by yours. America supplies the guns and the need for the guns. I don't understand your people. . . . You are insatiable for drugs. You take drugs to wake up and drugs to fall asleep. . . . You take drugs to have sex and drugs to not have children. You take drugs to keep your legs from twitching. For your children it is an easy step to the pleasure drugs that come up through Mexico. . . . We cannot eradicate your degeneracy. So it's the guns. You need to stop the guns."

That's a harsh way of describing the "demand" side of the "drug war" equation, but it's nothing that people like Charlie Hood, a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy on loan to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, can do anything about. They can only try to put a dent in the gun trafficking, employing investigative methods like those used in Operation Blowdown, the campaign at the center of "Iron River."

This is the third Hood novel, and he is a sweetly sympathetic guy, an Iraq War vet who writes letters to his parents as a way to focus his mind. In one letter, he hints at the horrors he has faced in Operation Blowdown and tells Mom and Dad that "I now own a full soldier's soul, something I never quite earned in my months in Iraq." Parker comes up with a vivid assortment of corrupt or merely weak perpetrators for Hood and his colleagues to cope with. They include Ron Pace, a bankrupt California gun manufacturer willing to do business with killers in order to rebuild Pace Armaments; Pace's Uncle Chester, a man who refers to the guns he sells as "the working man's equalizer"; Bradley Jones, the mixed-up son of a bank robber who keeps the head of his Mexican bandit ancestor at home in a jar; and Mike Finnegan, who might be insane, psychic or just well-connected -- Hood can't be sure which. There are also some likable women who show up in this story -- one is a doctor in a California hospital that is brazenly raided by the Zeta drug gang -- but they seem to be here mainly because Parker likes women.

The suspense in "Iron River" is terrific, and the atmospherics dense and convincing, but it's the social observations that really stick with you. Here is the canny Sgt. Raydel Luna again: "The war is not about stopping drugs. Our country is corrupt. The rich hoard wealth for themselves. We have a few of the very rich and many millions of the very poor and no one in between. But now a new rich class is beginning. The cartels have created it. They have amassed money, which becomes power through violence, and later through legitimacy. The cartels crave legitimacy, and the ruling class will not surrender it. So the cartels use Zetas, and the ruling class uses government soldiers. This is a war of the classes. It is a struggle for power and privilege." And we thought our new rich were crass.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.

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