One only need to read a few reviews of T. Jefferson Parker’s work, and consequently book reviews, to come to the realization that readers either love him or hate him. The Jaguar is no different. I think this is because his novels don’t conform to any one particular style of crime fiction. He is usually associated with “police procedurals” when in fact a number of his novels are classic “whodunits” and have nothing to do with “police procedurals” as a style. He also can write in a hardboiled style, or a noir style and often mixes these together. I happen to think this is a good thing, and it isn’t the mixing of styles that loses me.
The Jaguar opens with the violent kidnapping of Erin McKenna, the beautiful and talented songwriter and performer. Erin also is the newlywed wife of a crooked Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, Bradley Jones. It is soon deduced that Erin has been kidnapped by Benjamin Armenta, the cut throat leader of The Gulf Cartel. Bradley will do anything to get her back, even to the tune of delivering a $1,000,000 ransom (or personal apology) and ending his illicit protection of Carlos Herredia and the North Baja Cartel in Los Angles. He has ten days to comply. If he does not, then Armenta will skin Erin alive.
It soon becomes clear that Armenta must want more. A million dollars for a drug kingpin is tip money, and Bradley realizes that it is his humiliation and probable death that is really desired. But, why didn’t they just kill him and have have done with it?
He doesn’t have time to answer these questions as the clock is ticking. He enlists the help of long time family friend and veteran L.A. County Deputy, Charlie Hood. Hood will deliver the money while Bradley, with a team of mercenaries tries to penetrate and assault Armenta’s well guarded jungle compound.
Erin soon learns that it isn’t the money that Armenta wants, it is her song writing talent. She is to compose the perfect narcocorrido, a folk ballad that records the exploits of the drug dealers, gunrunners, and outlaws. Armenta wants to celebrate his life in song and he has a fully equipped recording studio in his jungle mansion. Armenta proceeds to tell his life story to Erin, so that she will be able to write the song as truthfully as possible. How he was left to a life on the streets, practically begging for food and fighting off predatory gangs and lone men, little better than animals, that would prey on a young homeless boy. How he became first a thief, then a drug dealer and slowly built his empire.
During the first few days, Erin also sees first hand how he deals with those he perceives to have betrayed him or are outright enemies. He feeds a local reporter to his menagerie of lions and tigers and leopards — but oddly, considering the title, no jaguars. And his household watches the man devoured, alive. She also discovers that the reason Armenta’s third floor of his mansion is off limits. He uses it to house a colony of lepers and the nuns that care for them.
As Bradley and Charlie Hood race south via different routes they encounter the perils of travel in Mexico, highway robbers, vicious storms that wash away villages and villagers that live there. They encounter Mexican military who have their own agenda and may straddle both sides of the official stand on drug cartels. And, they encounter the mysterious Mike Finnegan, Charlie Hoods old nemesis, and his beautiful and flawed daughter – maybe – Owens.
Parker succeeds in telling a tense, interesting, story with characters that are full grown, if a bit of a stretch of the imagination is needed to believe them. The “style” starts off as a thriller in the classic hunter/prey mode of crime fiction and noir, and dips it’s foot into the hardboiled. But more than anything, and this is admittedly my least favorite genre in noir, he employs a “gothic” style, especially once the tale takes us to Mexico. The plot is also compelling, and drawn from a great and realistic premise. With the success that Mexican cartels have in transporting drugs into the U.S. today, it doesn’t take much to believe that at least some of them have coopted law enforcement and border control agents and that the millions they can use to tempt these agencies with make their civil service wages and pensions look paltry in comparison.
Where the book fails for me is that Bradley is stated to be a 21 year old L.A. County Sheriffs Deputy, yet he is an under cover agent and that asks the reader to accept a bit to much, as does the fact that he is obviously living beyond his salary; during the kidnapping Erin tells her kidnappers they have the wrong guy, that Bradley isn’t rich, and the kidnapper just smiles and looks around at the Porsche Cayenne, and classic cars and Erin’s new Toureg, and the big fishing boat. Then there’s the security system that Bradley has on his large estate.
Bradley is obviously wealthy beyond what his mother could have left him, regardless of being descended from Joaquin Murrieta. And that Charlie Hood, a seasoned detective, and friend of Bradley’s doesn’t suspect this, even after Bradley hands him a million dollars in small bills, is also a stretch. Further, though Parker succeeds in making us empathize if not sympathize with Armenta, he also makes too much of a caricature of him. And the seemingly invincible Mike Finnegan seems to exist as nothing much more than a deus ex machina – the god in the machine – he seems to appear to either miraculously save the day, or devilishly throw an unlikely cog in the works.
Despite these faults, I liked the book, but, only liked. The gothic style in crime fiction is not for everyone. I still can’t bring myself to reread Cornell Woolrich, yet he is almost universally thought of as one of the masters of Noir Fiction, which I simply adore. Perhaps, and I would not be surprised, one day Parker will be viewed in the same league as Woolrich.