Review

Iron River: A Charlie Hood Novel

by T. Jefferson Parker

IRON RIVER is T. Jefferson Parker’s present to the new
decade. The third in what can now be called a series involving his
Charlie Hood character, it is one of those books that you
won’t give away, sell, or even loan. The story is of a place
(the California-Mexico border), a time (two minutes from right now)
and people (think Pulp Fiction crossed with Apocalypse
Now
and interbred with Reservoir Dogs) teetering at
the rough edge of a frightening abyss that cannot be imagined yet
that truly exists.

The novel opens with an unfortunate traffic accident along a
scantly traveled stretch of U.S. highway near the Mexican border.
The victim, a man named Mike Finnegan, is left for dead with what
are apparently mortal injuries. When he is found, he is
miraculously still alive. And when hospitalized in the tiny border
town of Buenavista, he demonstrates amazing recuperative powers ---
and much more. Finnegan seems to possess an ability to read minds
and discern events far beyond his hospital bed. Some of this
possibly can be explained; some cannot. Some of what Finnegan says
seems to be delusional; some may be factual. Parker drops clues ---
some explicit, some implicit --- as to what and who Finnegan might
be. And as IRON RIVER progresses and as Finnegan turns into more
and more of a key player, his story becomes truly engrossing.

And what, precisely, is the “iron river”? The title
refers to the passage of firearms between the United States and
Mexico. Charlie Hood is on assignment to the ATFE --- The Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (the “E” in
the acronym, as one character states, is silent). But Hood’s
surveillance mission goes horribly wrong when a bystander is
accidentally shot and killed by a government agent. The victim is
the teenage son of Benjamin Armanta, the head of a gulf drug cartel
who also deals out mind-numbing violence with impunity. It is a
given that Armanta will take his revenge --- and take it, he does,
in an astounding act that has the potential to become an
international incident.

Meanwhile, a somewhat aimless young man who is the unlikely heir
of a bankrupt firearms company is given a shot at redemption.
Ronald Pace has been left holding the bag after a product liability
judgment effectively puts the company out of business. His
salvation appears in the form of an enigmatic character named
Bradley Smith (last seen in THE RENEGADES) who purportedly
represents a security agency. Pace has a prototype automatic
firearm he has invented that can fulfill all of Smith’s
needs; Smith’s principal, which is not a security agency, has
deep pockets. It is a match made in hell. As Pace Arms begins the
manufacture of a thousand firearms destined for a drug overlord in
Mexico, Hood finds himself playing catch-up in a game where even
the slightest misstep can be deadly --- and both friends and
enemies are less and more than what they seem to be.

Parker continues to be amazing. The introduction of Finnegan
injects into the proceedings an element of the supernatural that is
entirely believable and plausible, especially in the setting of
IRON RIVER where the rules seem to have been turned upside down. As
one character states, “Something got out of the
bottle.” Yes, indeed. And Ronald Pace? Somehow, by the time
the novel ends, he is a somewhat likable character. I am not sure
how Parker pulls this off; he does make Pace the only character in
the book whose story is told in the first person present, so he is
provided with a soapbox not afforded the other principals.

The plot drives IRON RIVER just as much as the characters,
however. One is put in the mind of everything from the collective
works of Carlos Castaneda to Cormac McCarthy’s
Border trilogy to Elmore Leonard’s western novels
--- with crisp dialogue, tight pacing and sudden violence. Yet the
book is pure Parker in the spirit of such classics as SILENT JOE
and CALIFORNIA GIRL. And while it is complete in itself, there are
enough loose ends --- and characters on the loose --- at the
conclusion to provide fodder for as many more Charlie Hood novels
as Parker might care to write.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Iron River: A Charlie Hood Novel
by T. Jefferson Parker

  • Publication Date: January 4, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0451232429
  • ISBN-13: 9780451232427