Written by Brad Parks — a strong sense of purpose infuses Brad Parks’s new crime thriller The Last Act and propels the story forward with relentless energy. In an author’s note, Parks reveals the book was motivated by a real-life episode. Between 2004 and 2007, Wachovia, a large US bank, failed to use appropriate money-laundering controls and cleansed at least $378 billion dollars from the Mexican drug cartel Sinaloa, reaping billions of dollars in fees. While the bank ultimately received a fine, modest compared to its gains, no Wachovia executive even face charges.
But can Parks’s sense of outrage translate into fiction without becoming simply polemical? Absolutely. His unlikely protagonist is Tommy Jump, small in stature, a former child star, aging out of his career in musical theatre and still too young for character roles. He’s at loose ends, ending a gig as Sancho Panza in The Man of LaMancha, when he’s approached by an old high school buddy. After a stint in the military, Danny Ruiz – Danny Danger to his adolescent crowd – became an FBI agent. Danny and his partner offer Tommy a deal.
The FBI wants an actor to play a felon and infiltrate the minimum-security federal prison in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where convicted banker Mitchell Dupree is confined. As an executive of Union South Bank, Dupree helped the Mexican drug cartel New Colima launder more than a billion dollars, and has hidden away a trove of evidence, which the FBI believes could be used to bring the cartel to its knees. They’ve searched for the documents pretty relentlessly and know the cartel is looking for them too.
But the documents are Dupree’s insurance policy. If anything happens to him or his family, they will be released to the authorities. He doesn’t trust the government’s witness protection programme and believes they are his only hope of surviving. So he’s not sharing.
However, Ruiz knows Dupree has a hunting cabin in some secret location. They want Tommy to find out where. It will be the acting job of his career. The FBI will set him up as a convicted bank robber, a cooperating prosecutor will appear before a judge, and Tommy will plead guilty. This is the paper trail that any snoopy cartel lawyers will find. After sentencing, he will go into prison as Peter Lenfest Goodrich. No one there, not even the warden, will know he’s not a real prisoner, because secrets have an inconvenient habit of leaking. He’ll have six months to befriend Dupree and find out where the documents are, and he’ll be at least $150,000 richer.
Tommy and his live-in girlfriend Amanda don’t spend a lot of time contemplating this offer. He’s out of work, she’s an artist with no regular income, and she’s newly pregnant. They don’t want to think of themselves as people tempted by money, but they are.
As Tommy, now Pete, enters prison, author Parks does a terrific job describing his mental state and coping mechanisms, and the strategies he uses to befriend Dupree. You get a sense not just of the physical environment, but of the power structure and the people within it. He is a character you really care about.
Though most of the story is Tommy’s, occasional chapters are from other viewpoints. Amanda, who’s living with Tommy’s mother Barb – a memorable character in herself – is struggling with her painting. Dupree’s wife, Natalie, is living with their two kids in a much downsized Atlanta suburb and feeling the strain. Her husband is away, their finances are a shambles, and she’s convinced she’s being followed. A New Colima lieutenant named Herrera provides a first-hand view of the psychodynamics and viciousness of the cartel. Through his eyes, we see the lengths to which they’ll go in spying on Dupree and Natalie. Once Pete finally approaches Dupree, Amanda and Barb are in their sights too.
That’s the set-up. I won’t say more about plot, because you should discover for yourself the agonising twists Parks has in store. By cooperating with the FBI agents Tommy is in far deeper than he’s ever imagined. As every major character launches some type of competing smokescreen, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars