October 23, 2012

Jefferson Parker - getting better and better

Jefferson Parker's Renegades is the second in a series of (so far) five books about US lawman Charlie Hood.

Operating on the border between Southern California and Mexico, Hood is currently working for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department as a patrolman. After an incident that I can't disclose, he's asked to work for Internal Affairs to investigate the incident. This involves him questioning his colleagues and also pursuing an investigation into drug-running between Mexico and the United States.

Parker has several strengths as a writer. He creates interesting characters that are strong, decisive and not always clear themselves about the morality of what they do. This leads to complex alliances between them and also to situations where you find yourself rooting for someone who is black-hearted ... a strange experience. Parker is also good at creating atmosphere and while he isn't overly descriptive, he provides enough information so that you have a clear sense of where the events are taking place. His prose is straightforward but occasionally shifts gear into something more metaphorical or imagistic:
It was windy and getting dark, and the desert cold was sharp and weightless as a razor blade. A tumbleweed skipped across Avenue J. The overhead traffic light at Division Street shivered on its cables. Snow was coming and Hood had not yet seen snow in this desert.
Note the use of simile and metaphor here - 'sharp and weightless as a razor blade', 'tumbleweed skipped', the traffic light 'shivered on its cables'. This is writing that is engaging and offers more than simple description. He could have written 'the desert cold was sharp' (omitting the simile) and 'A tumbleweed blew across Avenue J.' Using more metaphorical language makes you work just a little harder to 'see' the descriptions; it's a subtle tactic but it makes the book very readable.

Parker also uses another strategy that he's been using for many years now - he mixes third-person narrative with first-person. He was one of the first writers I saw using this technique (along with James Lee Burke) and as usual it serves him well. His main narrative, about Charlie Hood, is given to us in the third person:
Hood, in his six short months up here in the desert, had seen that the gangs were thriving. There had been another killing just last week, a seventeen-year-old clicked up with Eighteenth, standing on a street corner waving a big foam “New Homes” sign shaped like an arrow. Hood had learned that these people were called “human directionals” by the developers who hired them, but most people just called them sign wavers.
This enables Parker to give us lots of incidental detail that specifies the location and helps us understand his job. The phrase here, 'Hood had learned ... ', is Parker using his research and putting it into Hood's thought processes for us to learn too. It enables us to see him in context while understanding his motives and his actions.

The other 'voice' that we hear is that of Coleman Draper, a Police Reservist who we soon discover is one of the chief bad guys in the story. At first we don't know it's him, though it becomes apparent quickly:
“Listen and don’t interrupt. I invited you here to tell you a story. It’s about a friend of mine we called Mr. Wonderful, and the things that happened to him and why they had to happen to him. Your friend Hood plays a role in this story, too. But it’s bigger than both of them. It’s about chaos and opportunity.”
Draper is talking to a boy who we have met in the first book in the series, LA Outlaws, and who will come to play a larger role as the series continues. Draper tells the boy part of the story that Charlie Hood is actually investigating, so this serves the purpose of clarifying events for us while showing them from the perspective of those involved. Thus, later, when we see Hood discovering the events for himself, we can pat ourselves on the back because we knew what had happened before he did.

The conversation Draper has with 'the boy' is also revealing because it adds another layer of complexity at the level of character. In terms of plot, these sections of direct dialogue between the two of them are not essential. However, they deepen our understanding of Draper and his pathology while showing us how the boy gets sucked into this underworld.

Parker is fond of ambiguity, which often shows in his stories' resolutions and, in the later books, in a kind of pervasive drug-related mysticism. It may be because this is only the second of a series that there are unanswered questions at the end of the story, but it is nonetheless a satisfactory ending.

Over time Parker has become more streamlined in his plotting (compare this to Triggerman's Dance and Little Saigon, for example) and even more adept at drawing character and situation. He was good to begin with, but he's getting better all the time.

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