Written by T Jefferson Parker — Parker has written many stand-alone thrillers, usually set in California, but in The Jaguar we see the return of a character from earlier books, Charlie Hood. Hood is a good cop who has fought his way out of many difficult situations, both at home and abroad. Here he is given an almost impossible task – to rescue a woman who has been captured by Armenta, the fearsome boss of a Mexican drug cartel. The fact that she is the pregnant wife of a colleague in law enforcement only makes the situation more complex. His colleague Bradley Jones is in the pay of a rival drug baron, and the kidnapped woman is Erin McKenna, a celebrated singer/songwriter.
The violence and disregard for human values and decency that underpin the Mexican drug trade are brilliantly captured. Media reports of beheadings and other atrocities carried out by rival gangs in Mexico provide a real-life backdrop to a novel where the descriptive writing would have to work to keep pace with the reality. Parker is at his best when describing events such as the effect of a hurricane on a Mexican town, and the shootout between the rescue team and a gun crew from the drug cartel. Parker writes in a vivid, almost dreamlike style, and his Mexican landscape is intense and vibrant.
The story unfolds from three viewpoints: that of Jones and his team made up of gunmen sent by the gangster for whom he works; that of Hood, travelling mostly alone but carrying the ransom to Erin’s captor; and Erin’s own perspective. As she awaits rescue in the jungle castle, she is tasked with composing a ‘narcocorrido’ which tells the story of Armenta’s early life and his rise to power. With echoes of Scheherezade, she uses her skills as a musician to extend the deadline which Armenta has set for the delivery of the ransom.
This book is not without flaws. There is a strange character who runs like a thread through the narrative. Mike Finnegan appears to be flesh and blood, yet Hood is convinced that he has seen the man’s face in a series of historical photographs which, if authentic, would make Finnegan impossibly old. I think Parker uses Finnegan as a metaphor. Anyone familiar with John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels will know that he uses characters who are timeless and ageless, but devoted to evil. If you accept this concept then Mike Finnegan, who he is and what he represents, shouldn’t be a problem. A harder circle to square is the plausibility of the Jones household. That Bradley adores his lovely wife is not in doubt, but we can only wonder how, at the age of 21 he has amassed a fortune in cash, expensive cars and weapons, without Erin questioning his conspicuous wealth. We are told that Bradley has been under close observation by his superiors, but it is still hard to believe that he is still functioning and can put together the rescue teams so easily.
Irritating typos jar from time to time. There are questions which remain unresolved about the motivation of some of the characters but the descriptive passages and the dialogue are clearly the work of a skilled writer. The references to music, great musicians and the magic they bestow on people’s lives are central to the narrative. Three simple questions, then. Did I care what happens to the main characters? Yes, absolutely. Does the writer create a convincing description of the real-life background to the events of the novel? Yes, beyond doubt. Despite the flaws, did the story keep me involved right until the final page? Again, yes.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars