Some writers are drawn to evil, and in the Americas they often find its epicenter along the border that separates the United States and Mexico. Cormac McCarthy has mined that rich territory with a series of much admired and exceedingly violent novels that include “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “No Country for Old Men.”
McCarthy remains the king of border noir, but in recent years James Carlos Blake has won praise for novels that have explored the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, the bloody Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and the adventures of Pancho Villa. Last year, in “Country of the Bad Wolfes,” which is set mostly in the 19th century, Blake introduced the Wolfe family, which has branches in Texas and Mexico — as does Blake’s own family — and is deeply involved in crime in both countries.
In “The Rules of Wolfe,” Blake carries the story into the present and thus into this era of fabulously rich, heavily armed and unspeakably cruel drug cartels. His story centers on three young men, Rudy and Frank Wolfe, who are in their late 20s and make their home near Brownsville in South Texas, and their hot-headed cousin Eddie, who is 19 and eager to join in the family’s gun-running enterprise.
The brothers remind their cousin that a Wolfe family rule demands that its young men graduate from college before entering the business. Frank wrote his senior thesis on Hemingway, and Rudy’s was on Alexander Pope. The brothers’ literacy doesn’t embellish their ability to run guns and to shoot down anyone foolish enough to cross them, but it helps maintain the family’s outward respectability.
The novel’s plot is far from original, but Blake fashions an exciting narrative out of it. Headstrong Eddie, rejected as a gun-runner, goes to Mexico and gets himself hired as a guard at an isolated ranch owned by the head of a drug cartel. When the drug czar and his top lieutenants arrive for a few days of relaxation with several sexy young women, Eddie talks his way into bed with the sexiest of them, Miranda. Naturally her boyfriend arrives early, wielding a gun, and naturally Eddie has no choice but to kill him and flee with Miranda. (And naturally we are relieved to learn that she is not some tramp but a relatively innocent teenager who was kidnapped off the street to be a drug lord’s plaything.)
The heart of the novel is the lovers’ flight across the desert to the hoped-for safety of Nogales, Ariz. In hot pursuit are dozens of the drug czar’s armed men, who have been urged to capture the couple alive so they can suffer the most painful deaths possible. Eddie gets word of his plight back home to Frank and Rudy, and family honor demands that they set off to save their wayward cousin.
The chase is long, harrowing and suspenseful. The lovers join a group of Mexicans who have paid $650 each to be smuggled across the border. Blake’s portrayal of the dangers of the immigrants’ crossing is better than any journalistic account I’ve seen. They can trust no one, they must survive a storm whose fury recalls the one King Lear encountered, and it is followed by killers with high-powered rifles. Readers who enjoy action, adventure and lethal weaponry will relish every moment.
Blake even injects occasional gallows humor. A friend tells Rudy about a man who gave the police information about a cartel’s activities, whereupon “the next evening when the tipster’s wife got home she found his head in the refrigerator. Minus a tongue.” After providing other gory details, the man pauses and adds, “I gotta hand it to those guys. They’ve got a real sense of, ah . . .”
“Theater,” Rudy injects.
“Exactly,” the man agrees.
Blake also has a fine sense of theater, at least for readers who can stomach all-too-realistic Tex-Mex noir that explores human nature at its worst.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
A Border Noir
By James Carlos Blake
258 pp. $24