"The Famous and the Dead" (Dutton), by T. Jefferson Parker
"The Famous and the Dead" is billed as the final installment in T. Jefferson Parker's six-volume saga about Charlie Hood, an earnest young Los Angeles lawman hellbent on reducing the illegal trade in firearms along the California-Mexico border.
As the story opens, Hood is still haunted by a shipment of Love-22s, a fictional, fully automatic handgun with silencer, that he let slip into the hands of a Mexican drug lord in an earlier book. He's still grappling with the profoundly evil Mike Finnegan, his primary tormentor. And he's ready to give up trying to reform Bradley Jones, a brilliant but crooked young cop and the son of Hood's lover, who died violently in the series' premiere novel, "L.A. Outlaws." These characters have so much history together that readers who haven't read the earlier books risk getting lost.
The new novel, like the series as a whole, is ambitious, daring and at once both brilliant and maddeningly uneven. Quirky, well-drawn characters mix with stereotypical government officials and cartoon villains. Superb prose, including lyrical descriptive passages, clash with sometimes wooden dialogue.
Parker grounds his story in the well-known problems plaguing the border — Mexican drug cartels, street gangs and gun-smuggling — peppering the tale with real events. Yet he mixes realism with bizarre invocations of the supernatural.
In earlier books, Parker only hinted at the latter, suggesting but not quite making us believe that the ubiquitous Mike Finnegan was the devil himself, or at least one of his minions. It seemed, at times, that this was meant to be a metaphor for earthly evils. In "The Famous and the Dead," he goes all in, introducing us to an army of demons hellbent on wreaking havoc and a band of angels struggling to undo the damage. We even get to meet one of the angels, a woman Finnegan has kept imprisoned in a pit for nearly a hundred years.
With Parker's human characters fully capable of creating a mess on their own, the demons and angels will strike some readers as a superfluous intrusion. In these otherwise realistic, hard-boiled novels, they feel like intruders from a bad horror movie.
Starting with the first of his 20 novels, "Laguna Heat," and continuing with stand-alones including "Silent Joe" and "California Girl," Parker has always chaffed at the boundaries of the crime fiction genre, creating wildly inventive characters and surprising storylines. His risk-taking alone makes all of his work, including the Charlie Hood series, well worth reading.
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, is the author of "Cliff Walk" and "Rogue Island."