T. Jefferson Parker has stated that when he sat down to write THE JAGUAR, he wanted, among other things, “to write a cracking good thriller.” This he has done, and to the 10th power. It is one of those books that transcends the genre to which it might otherwise so conveniently be assigned, and all others, for that matter. Over the course of 18 novels, Parker has consistently set and then exceeded his own standards; THE JAGUAR, the fifth book in his Charlie Hood series, raises the bar into nosebleed territory.
"Over the course of 18 novels, Parker has consistently set and then exceeded his own standards; THE JAGUAR, the fifth book in his Charlie Hood series, raises the bar into nosebleed territory."
Hood is a quietly honorable and decent man who, when first introduced in L.A. OUTLAWS, was a rookie deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. By IRON RIVER, the third in the series, Hood was placed on loan to BATF in an operation to curtail the illegal sale of guns across the joint border of the United States and Mexico. Bradley Jones is also an L.A. deputy sheriff, a badly broken law enforcement officer who is involved in the very illegal sale and transport of weapons that Hood is trying to stem. Hood has long suspected Jones of being involved in the illegal activity, but cannot prove it. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Jones and Hood maintain an uneasy and occasionally tenuous friendship, which is somewhat cemented by Hood’s friendship with Erin McKenna, a popular singer-songwriter who is married to Jones.
The book opens with Jones’s sins coming back to him. His seemingly impregnable home is invaded by soldiers of the extremely dangerous Gulf Cartel, who in turn kidnap Erin and the couple’s unborn child. Benjamin Armenta, the ruthless and unstable head of the Gulf Cartel, is angered by Jones’s association with a rival cartel and demands retribution for Jones’s perceived disrespect. Armenta’s soldiers give Jones a series of demands for the return of Erin and their child, including the delivery of one million dollars to Armenta within 10 days at a location to be communicated later. Jones is beside himself; his duplicitous lifestyle notwithstanding, he truly loves Erin and will go to any lengths to get her back. He enlists the help of his friend Hood, the most decent and reliable man he knows, and begins to execute a dangerous plan to find her.
Erin is transported to Armenta’s fortress-like palace deep in Mexico, where he reigns supreme within a multi-leveled residence filled with soldiers, animals and a secretive third floor suite of rooms that cannot be entered from within the house. Armenta is a complex character, a violent man with his own rough sense and code of honor and justice. He is a fan of Erin’s music, but assures her that he will kill her as promised should her husband fail to deliver on Armenta’s demands. But as they wait, Armenta experiences an odd, platonic attraction toward Erin, ultimately making a side agreement with her in which she is to write a narcocorrido, or drug ballad, in tribute to him and his accomplishments.
Meanwhile, the mysterious and enigmatic Mike Finnegan orchestrates events inside and outside the compound, even as Hood oversees a relentless campaign to ascertain his whereabouts. A word here about Finnegan: he is one of the most interesting and complex characters one is likely to find in modern fiction. He has hovered like a shadow in Parker’s last two novels, and in THE JAGUAR, some hint is given as to precisely who and what he is. But the hint may be a false one. It struck me approximately halfway through the book as to what Finnegan actually might be, given his apparent longevity, knowledge and seemingly supernatural abilities. I am not going to say what that could be --- Parker has invested too much time and talent in the character for me to give things away in a sentence or two of a review --- but I will say that Finnegan, as opposed to what he says he is, seems more related to a certain archetype of myth and legend whose benevolence of character has been markedly exaggerated in film. Time will tell.
THE JAGUAR is complete in itself, but its conclusion portends that there is much more to follow. Some of Parker’s best writing is found within these pages; there is a vignette in the middle of the book where he reveals the depth of Hood’s decency and goodness in a two-sentence exchange between Hood and a young boy who have just survived a life-threatening crisis. Anyone who can do that so effectively with such brevity is at the top of his game, and that is where you will find Parker.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 20, 2012