The Jaguar is a Faustian tale of corruption, retribution, depravity and the hopelessness of battling–or surviving–the international drug trade. Charlie Hood, L.A. sheriff’s deputy, is T. Jefferson Parker’s idealistic sleuth. Hood isn’t naive, exactly, and is nonchalant about placing himself in grave danger to achieve his objectives. But the world of the narcotrafficantes is so relentlessly dark, murderous and all-powerful that his core optimism strains credibility.
When Erin McKenna, successful songwriter, singer and pregnant wife of Bradley, a corrupt lawman who adores her, is kidnapped by the leader of the Gulf Cartel, the ransom is a million U.S. dollars and an odd request. Benjamin Armenta, eccentric narco-jefe who lives in a crumbling folly in the Yucatan jungle known as El Castillo, wants her to write and record an album for him. The castle contains, among other extravagances, a state-of-the-art recording studio and Erin barters talent for time so her husband and the friends, including Hood, he has enlisted to spring Erin can reach her. If time runs out, the cosmopolitan drug lord has promised to skin her alive. As Erin witnesses gruesome murders carried out in front of festive audiences in the castle, she has no doubt that Armenta means to keep his word. And she begins to doubt her husband, the phenomenal amount of material wealth they enjoy, and the shifting grounds of her marriage.
Parker writes a slick, compelling crime thriller with reasonably complex characters and enough color to damage your retinas. He puts you inside the brutal and ugly drug trade with Mexico and introduces you to sadists, art lovers, regretful criminals and stubbornly honest gumshoes–both American and Mexican. A number of them get killed. Erin is a plucky heroine from the first and constantly plots ways to save herself and her unborn son. The drug lord tells her of the murder of his angelic son and introduces her to the twisted rapist-son who threatens her with everything in his arsenal of perversity. There are scenes of horror, lovingly detailed. Lots of tension. A somewhat unbelievable subplot of a quest that twines into the kidnap-rescue mission in a seriously creepy way.
The Jaguar contains an ominous black jaguar, kept in the castle as one of the wild exotic pets. It also has its Mephistopheles and I’m not sure what we are supposed to make of him finally. He does seem to extract his blood-oath fealty and has very odd omniscience and powers. He uses primitive tools to achieve his ends and, in some cases, no discernible means whatsoever to discover damning information. He’s also a deadly puppet-master and so Parker has written something more than a cop-mystery-international-thriller-genre book.
I thought it was quite good. I also thought I have little interest in these unevolved shoot-‘em-ups and violence-plagued fictions any more. They seem like artifacts of a human era that has lasted eons past its time. The planet and its creatures–Homo sapiens included–can not sustain civilizations based on greed, war, materialism, raw power and an absence of respect for nurture, spirit, art and light. Just. Too. Dark. To be fair, one of the most crooked characters in this book does love art although he is incapable of actually producing any himself. In the end, that love is part of what undoes him. But the people who survive still live in the doomed world–damage, violence, a soul entirely sold to the devil, a lawless, loveless land. Time for some Minoan fantasies to clear my head, if only I knew of any books like that.
The Jaguar (Charlie Hood) T. Jefferson Parker | Dutton 2012