Book review: 'The Border Lords' by T. Jefferson Parker

When it comes to the crime-based fiction that long has played such an important role in the literary life of Los Angeles, we're living through what amounts to a golden age.

The dark ecstasies of James Ellroy, Michael Connelly's artful probing of the inner monologue, Joe Wambaugh's explorations of black comedy as morality play, Walter Mosley's blend of empathy and formal ambition and T. Jefferson Parker's propulsive but pitch-perfect works of social realism continue to chip away at the traditional boundaries between their genre and literary fiction.

That's become particularly true in Parker's case, and with his fourth Charlie Hood novel, "The Border Lords," his work takes a decisive turn into new levels of moral and fictional complexity. This volume is the latest in what the author intends to be a six-book series played out against the flow of drugs up from Mexico and arms south from the United States in a deadly symbiosis that currently is racking Mexico's civil society and reshaping swaths of America's border states. With each novel in the series — "L.A. Outlaws," "The Renegades" and "Iron River" — Parker has pushed more deeply into a situation saturated with blood and tragedy and which both Mexico City and Washington seem to lack the will to confront.

There's been a great deal of first-rate journalism on this corrosive crisis — some substantial part of it in this newspaper — but no novelist or short story writer in either English or Spanish has come close to portraying its depths and their implications as well, or as artfully, as Parker.

The border, for both peoples, always has been a moral frontier and a boundary of the imagination as much as a political one, and in this latest novel Parker takes full advantage of the physical and mental landscape's ambiguities. Almost nothing or no one in this gripping narrative is exactly who or what they seem to be. The author, moreover, has a knowing hand and pushes — in a sophisticated but never merely ironic way — against familiar literary memories as varied as Cormac McCarthy's border-hopping cowboys, Carlos Castaneda's Native American shaman and Graham Greene's whiskey priest. In fact, the book's most chilling character — and it's a tight competition — is a twisted pirouette off Greene's memorable character and one of the most appalling clerics in contemporary literature, if he really is what he appears to be.

Like the three previous novels in what Parker now conceives as his "Border" series, this one centers on the redoubtable Charlie Hood, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy on loan to the ATF to help suppress the gun trade along the border. Parker introduces a new character here, Hood's friend, Sean Ozburn, an ATF agent married to a beautiful Laguna Beach lifeguard and operating under the deepest cover within one of the most murderous Mexican drug cartels. Mysteriously and alarmingly, Ozburn, who is supposed to file regular e-mail reports, has slipped out of touch. The real action begins when Hood and his colleagues suddenly lose the audio and video connections they've been using to monitor a house on the American side that cartel hit men are using as a staging point for assassinations. When they arrive and find the gunmen all dead, they also recover a video image of Ozburn severing their link.

Hood's pursuit of his friend, who has fallen under the strange, possibly malevolent influence of an Irish priest who seeks a more direct defeat of evil than a pulpit provides, forms the spine of a narrative unfolding from Costa Rica to Lancaster. As with all Parker novels, the Southern California landscape, including West Hollywood and downtown's contemporary bar scene, is rendered with a fine, accurate eye. The author peoples them with an array of beautifully drawn secondary characters, and readers of the earlier books in this series will recognize the brilliant but corrupt cop, Bradley Jones, and the devious Mike Finnegan, both seeming destined for major roles in the coming novels.

"The Border Lords" represents a breakthrough for a novelist whose accomplishments already are many and notable. There's moral intelligence at work here but never a sentence that moralizes, nor concessions to generic conventions for cheap effect. It's a book that stands firmly in the entertaining, hard-boiled tradition and yet artfully demands serious consideration purely as a superior work of fiction.

One is reminded of an earlier era in which that seemed somehow impossible. In 1939, for example, the great Raymond Chandler, distraught over the lack of critical notice for "The Big Sleep" despite its literary publisher, Knopf, wrote to his friend Erle Stanley Gardner in near despair. His masterful novel had earned Chandler just a few hundred dollars and what made for a great book built around crime was much on his mind. Great literature, he wrote to Gardner, "is the perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control of a great pitcher. That to me is what you have and more than anyone else. Dumas had it, Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it.... Every page [of Gardner's stories] holds the hook for the next. I call that a kind of genius."

So does this reader, which makes "The Border Lords" an exceptional pleasure.