If you have never read a book by Ian Vasquez, I would ask that you spend the closing days of 2010 doing just that. In only three novels, Vasquez has demonstrated that he has that rare, raw and beautiful ability to suck the air out of the room in the space of a sentence. Would that be enough of a recommendation?
MR. HOOLIGAN, Vasquez’s third novel, returns to the familiar and dangerous environs of Belize, so starkly and darkly described in the pages of IN THE HEAT. This award-winning debut introduced an enigmatic and memorable character named Miles Young, who makes an appearance or two in the new book that could be described as something more than a cameo but less than a featured role. Instead, the focus is a middle-aged, semi-legitimate operator named Riley James. The part-owner of a popular Belize City bar, James supplements his income by picking up drug drops for the Monsanto Brothers, a pair of gangsters who are the true power in the city.
As a young man, James committed an error in judgment that would have had life-threatening consequences but for the intervention of the Monsantos. They saved his life, but since that time he has been in their debt, navigating boats through the reefs and channels that he knows so well and functioning as an integral part of their illicit business. James feels that he has reached the end of his rope with the Monsantos. He wants to be out of the business and clear of them so he can start a new life with the woman with whom he has fallen in love.
To cancel his obligation, James wants to do one last run, a major transaction that is fraught with danger. His route to the legitimate life is hardly an easy one, though. A crooked government official is trying to shake the bar down; the Monsantos are not exactly thrilled with James’s new attitude; and the very people who he trusts the most are the ones most likely to betray him. And it is the latter element that provides the crux of MR. HOOLIGAN. James is clever but not always smart. It doesn’t take long before he finds that by keeping his word to one friend, he may automatically betray another, or worse. And it isn’t long before things get quite bad indeed. By the end, there are very few people left who can walk away intact, if at all.
Ian Vasquez is a chillingly, frighteningly good writer, capable of creating characters who can creep you out and break your heart while constructing complex plots that will take you to places you will never anticipate. His ability to drop a swerve into the middle of a scene is matched by few, though he is careful to share his gift sparingly, all to greater effect. While comparisons with Elmore Leonard are inevitable, Vasquez is more than capable of charting his own course and acquiring a readership all his own along the way.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 7, 2010