Interview: T Jefferson Parker

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Hailing from Southern California, T Jefferson Parker has a string of crime novels to his name including Laguna Heat, which was made into a film. If you’ve not come across his work, Sandstone Press is about to introduce it into the UK with his novel The Jaguar. It’s part of his Charlie Hood series and begins with a kidnapping, taking you into the world of Mexican drug cartels, with all their strange honour systems and unpredictability. Like quite a few books we’ve come across lately, it begins in the crime genre but blends in a little of the supernatural too, with a cataclysmic clash between forces of good and evil which are not entirely of this world. We asked the author to tell us a little more about his book…

What’s the Jaguar about in a nutshell?
What it’s really about is the idea that art is stronger than death. I wanted to show a young artist – in this case a musician and songwriter – kidnapped, held against her will and innocent, who must write music to stay alive. Music is her only weapon, not a gun or advanced Hapkido skills.

The kidnapping of a songwriter to compose a song glorifying the cartel leader is an interesting premise – where did that idea come from?
It sounds like something out of mythology, or the Bible. Yes, I thought first of Scheherazade in The 1001 Arabian Nights.  I’d always loved that story. Mom probably read it to me! I was flabbergasted to learn, several years ago, that wealthy Mexican cartel drug lords often commission these songs to be written about their exploits. There’s a competition between them to see who can have the best song written about them. Wild, isn’t it?

And what attracted you about the badlands or borderlands of Mexico as the setting?
To me there two Mexicos. One is the Mexico I knew as a child and a young man. We’d go there all the time, as a family – camping on the beach, going to Tijuana for Jai ‘Alai, down to Ensenada for day trips. I fell in love with place – the people and the language, and later the literature and history. Then, around six years ago, the cartel violence became alarming, and it’s gotten worse each year – 40,000 drug-related murders in six years. So, that’s the other Mexico, the violent, crazy one. I set my stories along the border and in Mexico so I can write about those two worlds. There’s the romantic Mexico and the anti-romantic one. For a crime writer, both Mexicos are fertile places.

What about the supernatural angle – how did you get it to hang within the crime genre?
I’ve always believed that good and evil natures live inside us at once. They vie for our attention and compete for us. I love the idea that we – mankind – are a prize to be fought over by these natures, so I’ve put a face on them. In The Jaguar, Mike Finnegan continues to claim that he is a journeyman, middle-management devil. Mike certainly knows things, and does things, that no mortal man should know or do. But then, is he just brilliant and insane, as his daughter says? Or is he more than that? I’ve just finished the novel that will fully reveal and establish Mike Finnegan. Until then, I ask my readers to enjoy his wicked deeds and sense of humor and his gift for creating chaos all around him.

Many of your fans really like the Charlie Hood books, including the Jaguar, but some have complained about them and prefer your older work. Why do you think that is?
Certainly the Mike Finnegan character. He’s not something like you’ll run across in my earlier books, or in anybody else’s, for that matter. A mystery/thriller writer bending the rules a bit, as I do, certainly faces a risk in the marketplace, thus the hate. Some readers want more conventional stories, and simply won’t cotton to the idea that devils and angels might walk among us, in these novels at least. Others are eager to go where they’ve not necessarily gone before.

What are the things you hope crime fiction lovers (our readers) will enjoy most about the book?
I think there’s a mindful velocity to this story, and it turns rather quickly and nimbly at times. I think readers will love the dank, sub-tropical world where Benjamin Armenta’s castle is located. I think they’ll be passionately hopeful that Erin McKenna, the songwriter, can compose her song and save her own skin. There’s also an interesting study of a drug lord here. Armenta is not portrayed as a violent monster – though he does some hair-raising things. Rather, he’s got his own story, and history, and there are certainly forces that have helped shape him and his life.

The Jaguar comes out from Sandstone Press at the end of May. Please feel free to post your comments below.

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