If the killers of the gifted young El Monte, Califfornia, educator and public official Bobby Salcedo ever are brought to justice, we’re likely to find that the weapons used to kill him and five other men kidnapped from a bar in the drug-ravaged Mexican city of Gomez Palacio were purchased in the United States.
The fraught complexities behind that tragedy — and thousands like it — form the backdrop and, more important, the animating moral disquiet for T. Jefferson Parker’s terrific new book, Iron River: A Charlie Hood Novel.
Iron River is a metaphor for the chain of gun shops and dealers that runs along the US-Mexican border from Tijuana to Corpus Christi, Texas. They serve as the headwaters for the torrent of military and civilian firearms that continue to flow from the United States into Mexico, where they’re employed by drug-dealing cartels in what has become the narcos’ war on that country’s civil society.
The money the gangsters use to purchase weapons illegally in Mexico comes from the proceeds of drugs illicitly smuggled into the United States. More weapons allow the rival cartels to operate with greater impunity across wider territories, which permits them to ship more drugs north of the border, which generates more cash, which makes possible the purchase of more and deadlier guns.
Not since the infamous triangle of sugar, rum and slaves that dominated the 18th century Caribbean has the New World seen quite so vicious an economic circle. Salcedo and his companions were casualties in a civil conflict that has killed at least 15,000 Mexicans over the last three years, a level of violence not seen in the nearly 90 years since the Cristero Wars. As the aging Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz mused a century ago, his nation’s great misfortune was to be located “so far from God and so near the United States.”
Great detective fiction incorporates topicality, character and plot. When all three are present in equal measure, as they surely are in Iron River, it’s a reading experience that adds up to something more than engaging entertainment.
Parker, like his formidable contemporaries Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, is a master in a remarkable generation of Los Angeles-centered detective novelists. (Had he not abandoned his Easy Rollins series, Walter Mosley certainly would be numbered in their company.)
Parker, who grew up, went to school and worked as a reporter in Orange County, is particularly notable for his precise ability to evoke the Southern California sense of place beyond urban Los Angeles. He also has a remarkable gift for engaging characterization and layered plotting that, while realistic in its factual ambiguity, is never without a moral frame of reference.
This is the third novel he has built around the immensely likable Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Charlie Hood. His role in the complex story that unfolds around him is rather nicely suggested in the quotation from Herman Melville with which Parker begins the narrative: “There, then, he sat, holding that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.”
Hood has been detached to work with a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task force charged with suppressing the illicit arms trade on the US side of the border. When their stakeout of a staged buy in the parking lot of a store charmingly named Guns A Million goes awry, Charlie and his comrades are forced to shoot dead a young man who turns out to be the son of the feared Zeta cartel’s leader.
The gangsters’ vengeance is swift and savage, targeting not only the law enforcement officers involved but, as has become routine in Mexico, their loved ones. Ultimately, Charlie will be forced to undertake a journey into the heart of the narcos’ darkness to ransom a colleague, an exercise that will end in a dash for the border that eerily evokes the crossing of millions of Mexican migrants through the years.
Along the way, Hood encounters a half-mad cartel patron who insists that his depredations are a revolution against Mexican inequality and US oppression:
“Americans are the enemy of Mexico. They have the appetites of Satan and the money and guns to satisfy their appetites. They are rotting with luxury and godlessness and they have spent themselves into ruin. They have nothing in common with us but a border… (T)hat rotting America will help me drive this rotting government from our land… It will finance the revolution as well as myself…”
Fans of the previous Charlie Hood novels will welcome the reappearance of the dubious Bradley Smith, oldest son of the compelling Allison Murrieta, a lineal descendant of the storied Californio Robin Hood. Parker’s knowledge of California history is sufficiently detailed, by the way, so that the 19th century outlaw’s severed head manages to make a credible appearance. As for Bradley, suffice to say he’s managed here to get himself in worse and more deadly trouble than ever.
Parker has said elsewhere that, because of its lax gun laws and indifference to their consequences south of the border, he considers the United States “complicit” in Mexico’s current agonies. Iron River makes that point without a moment’s descent into the didactic. This is gripping literary entertainment with a point.