For me, the best literary mystery of 2010—in fact, the Best Mystery period—is Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker. Parker begins his morality play in the town of Buenavista, along the porous border between the U.S. and Mexico. A drifter named Mike Finnegan, a hit-and-run victim, is taken to the local hospital, miraculously survives, and asks to see Charlie Hood, an LA deputy sheriff on loan to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) task force trying to staunch the flow of illegal weapons from American suppliers to the Mexican drug cartels (the ‘Iron River’).
Finnegan’s a man of mystery with no verifiable past but an uncanny power to predict the future while speaking as if firsthand of events and people a century ago. Yet, he will function throughout the book as a flesh-and-blood spirit guide to Hood and the lawmen as they battle the Gulf cartel and its rival, the Zetas. The inciting incident is the accidental killing by an ATF agent of an innocent bystander in a shootout, who is the brother of Benjamin Armenta, the leader of the Zetas. The cartel retaliates by crossing the border to kidnap and torture the ATF agent responsible. A federal force, backed quietly by a trustworthy group of Mexican cops, rescues the agent after a pitched battle with the Zetas. And the Zetas come back across to try again.
One measure of a crime novel is its villain. In the Zetas, ex-military, Parker has created one scary, gripping character. Their pitched battles with the ATF are as mesmerizing as they are bloody. Parker’s unhurried, lyrical style, present throughout the book, somehow makes it all palatable in the end. The two sub-plots, integral to the main, introduce an American gun-maker doing business with the Gulf Cartel, who is such a flawed but decent man that you find yourself rooting for him to survive. Not so with Bradley ‘Smith’, newly-minted LA sheriff’s deputy, who believes himself the descendent of Joaquin Murrieta, the Mexican bandit, in whose footsteps he is following. Charlie Hood had lived with Bradley’s mother, who had a shady past that got her shot to death. Parker keeps their shared past a bit ambiguous, which is fine, as he wondrously interlaces their lives and stories. ‘Ghosts’ that his characters carry is a very effective technique Parker employs here as he has in his previous novels.
Iron River has a metaphysical dimension that is hard to describe in words; you just experience it as you would in reading Lehane’s Mystic River, Don Winslow’s Power of the Dog, and Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night. Ordinarily, I’m no fan of a supernatural element in a mystery. But when done artfully, it works and adds something more to the whole. In Tropic of Night, Gruber’s very fine debut novel, a voodoo background heightens the Miami setting and moves the plot. In Iron River, Parker is more subtle, linking the illusive character of Finnegan with an ending that surprises. Don’t miss this one…or Gruber’s new one, The Good Son, best left for another time.