BOOK REVIEW: "The Jaguar" by T. Jefferson Parker


Best-selling crime novelist (and longtime Fallbrook resident) T. Jefferson Parker has a gift for challenging readers with sympathetic villains — even those who would have their victims skinned alive. And the threat of flaying is what drives the action in Parker's newest Charlie Hood novel, The Jaguar. (Parker will be reading from and signing The Jaguar at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Clairemont Mesa and at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Fallbrook's Cafe des Artistes.)

In The Jaguar, Hood heads deep into Mexico's Yucatan jungle, where a kidnap victim, singer Erin McKenna, has been hidden to await one of several possible fates: to be skinned alive by the deranged son of an engaging and sorrowful drug cartel lord, Benjamin Armento; to be rescued by Hood with a million-dollar ransom; to be freed by her husband, Bradley Jones, in a raid on the drug lord's compound; or to charm her captor with a narcocorrido fabuloso, extolling his adventures and conquests in balladic verse.

As the threat drives the book's action, so creation drives the characters of The Jaguar. McKenna struggles to nurture a life growing within her and to save her own by writing a ballad to satisfy her kidnapper, while Armento attempts to fashion a legend for himself that will compensate for his failed parenthood. Amid their tormented negotiations, Parker does what he does best: He creates intriguing characters whose imperfections and obsessions transform the crime fiction genre into something entertaining and literary, something brutal and lyrical, something oddly familiar — despite the exotic locales and mysteries that populate the novel. His characters seem familiar because they are so human, so believable.

In this, the third of Parker's border series, he has ratcheted down the violence between the Mexican drug cartels and law enforcement (although there's still plenty of it) and ramped up the interpersonal intrigue. In particular, he develops the relationship between the perennially baffling Mike Finnegan and Hood, who cannot determine whether Finnegan is indeed a magical contemporary of 19th-century bandit Joaquin Murrieta, as he claims, or a modern-day Machiavelli, manipulating the story's players in his quest for power and sadistic satisfaction.

McKenna is anguished by the revelation that the man she adores has misled her, while Jones fights internally to give up his vanity in exchange for the help he needs to save his wife from the peril in which he has put her. Armento is confronted with murderous competitors and his own devilish sense of honor, which requires grotesque retribution for such hapless victims as an unfriendly journalist. Plenty of other characters battle or align with one another in an ongoing drug war where integrity can be a deadly weakness.

In addition to his finely crafted characters, Parker weaves critical contemporary issues into his plot, from the unsolved murders of thousands of young women in Juarez, Mexico, to a child-molesting priest to the devastating "iron river," the persistent flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico (and the title of Parker's first book in the series). Parker's research of gun and drug trafficking across the permeable line between the two nations, and the effects on both, makes the series an enlightening read for anyone concerned about the border that attempts to divide us.

All told, The Jaguar is a weighty and entertaining exploration of vice and virtue, staged in a complex plot that leaves the reader eager to find out what will develop for Charlie Hood and his cohorts in the next border series novel — due out in early 2013.

Crossposted at the North County Times.