Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker

Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Not since the infamous triangle of sugar, rum and slaves has the New World seen quite so vicious an economic circle.

Iron River (Charlie Hood Series #3)

Publisher: Dutton
Length: 384 pages
Author: T. Jefferson Parker
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-01

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.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.