Brad Parks started his career as a reporter for this newspaper and later worked for the Newark Star-Ledger. He has now written nine novels and won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty crime-fiction awards. His thriller “Say Nothing,” published in 2017, was delightfully suspenseful, but his latest, “The Last Act,” may be his best yet.
The book relates the improbable but unputdownable story of a law-abiding young man who goes to prison to bring down a drug lord. Tommy Jump won success as a child actor, but at 27 he’s too old and too short to win good roles. He urgently needs a job, in part because his girlfriend, the lovely Amanda, is pregnant.
What to do? Unexpectedly, a friend from high school, Danny Ruiz, now an FBI agent, makes a strange but tempting offer. He explains that a banker named Mitchell Dupree is in prison for laundering millions of dollars for a Mexican drug cartel. Dupree has documents that could bring down the cartel but refuses to surrender them to the FBI.
The agent offers Tommy $100,000 if he’ll pose as a convict for no more than six months, befriend the banker and find out where the documents are hidden. Danny insists that Tommy, being an actor, is perfect for this deception.
Tommy can’t resist the money. After a fake trial is staged, he’s sent to a federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va., with an eight-year sentence for bank robbery. He’s assured that it’s a minimum-security prison for nonviolent, white-collar offenders, where he (and we) will be spared the unpleasant realities in less favored prisons.
They call it Club Fed. No one works very hard — maybe a few hours each day in the kitchen or laundry; otherwise inmates read, watch TV, play poker and enjoy the marijuana that’s readily available, thanks to guards happy to make a buck.
Tommy talks his way into the nightly poker game with the banker he’s supposed to befriend, but their budding friendship inspires no disclosures. He frequently calls Danny at the FBI to report his progress — or lack thereof. (They speak in code lest prison officials are listening, which they are.) We’re fearful the cartel may have its own man inside the prison who will eliminate Tommy if he becomes a problem.
We meet the murderous cartel boss, El Vio, who is said to be “the richest, most feared man in Mexico” and ships tons of methamphetamine to the United States each year. He suggests El Chapo, the real-life drug lord who was recently given a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
Meanwhile, Amanda is living with Tommy’s domineering mother in New Jersey. Amanda hails from a tiny town in Mississippi that’s notable only for being near Elvis Presley’s hometown of Tupelo. She’s a talented artist, but when she takes her paintings to the head of New York’s finest art gallery, he demands sex for showing her work. She of course refuses and flees but wishes Tommy were there to support and console her.
When she visits Tommy, we’re given this glimpse of prison life: “I embraced her. Correctional institute regulations permit one hug and one kiss at the start and end of a visit — yes, the Bureau of Prisons even rations how much affection an inmate can receive. I was going to make the most of mine.”
That visit aside, things don’t go well. The man with the documents stays mum. It develops that Tommy, rather than being freed after the promised six months, may have to serve the full eight years he was sentenced on the phony charges. (Never trust the FBI.)
“The Last Act” possesses two notable virtues. One is excellent characterizations. Parks not only makes Tommy believable but does the same for numerous others, including his admirable girlfriend, his difficult mother, his huge, possibly dangerous cellmate, the poker-playing convict who has the secrets and the slippery FBI agent he trusts, perhaps unwisely. The other is a roller-coaster plot that serves up endless surprises. Whatever you think is coming next probably isn’t.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, Brad Parks will be at One More Page Books, 2200 N. Westmoreland St. in Arlington, Va.
By Brad Parks
Dutton. 384 pp. $26