by T. Jefferson Parker
Published by William Morrow
384 pages, 2007
Sinnin' in the Rain
Reviewed by James R. Winter
T. Jefferson Parker has been getting ambitious ever since his 2003 San Diego-based police thriller, Cold Pursuit. He's been casting a wider net with his characters, his back stories and his narrative flow. Indeed, 2004's California Girl was probably his most literary effort to date, having as much in common with Ross Macdonald's later work and that of Stephen King and Dennis Lehane as it did with his own earlier novels, such as Laguna Heat (1985). With 2006's The Fallen, he also took chances with his premises. The Fallen concerned a cop who, after tumbling out of a window, could literally see when people were lying. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a story might have come across as a knock-off of The X-Men or the TV series Heroes. In Parker's hands, it was merely a way to skew an already intricate plot.
So it's no surprise to find Parker once again flexing his literary muscles, while using a borderline science-fiction scenario as his MacGuffin. This time out, he does it with Storm Runners, a P.I. novel that doesn't read like a P.I. novel at all.
In a nutshell, Storm Runners is a bodyguard tale. Orange County, California, security specialist Matt Stromsoe goes to work for an old police colleague who's protecting a San Diego TV weather lady named Frankie Hatfield. A rather tired storyline, but it's merely an excuse for Parker to do what he does best, which is paint a broad canvas of characters over a fast-moving plot. He even borrows an old nemesis from the 1974 movie Chinatown, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DPW), but for an unusual reason: Frankie Hatfield's sideline is making rain. And apparently, she's close to accomplishing just that. As DPW director Patrick Choate tells an employee, "Only abundance can kill us." Anyone who can wring a few more inches of rain out of passing thunderstorms threatens his department with abundance.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The real story in this novel is the rivalry between two high-school friends turned bitter adult enemies: Stromsoe and imprisoned Mexican gang kingpin Mike Tavarez. It's the heart and the meat of Storm Runners. It's even a feature of the novel's opening:
Stromsoe was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son.
That's a terrific opening line, summing up the entire yarn and explaining what drives everything that happens in the succeeding pages. At its core, Storm Runners is about the strange love-hate bond between Stromsoe and Tavarez. Tavarez's lover died in a raid orchestrated by Stromsoe, who was a suburban L.A. deputy sheriff at the time. The raid ultimately sends Tavarez to prison for life. On the eve of his departure, he retaliates by planting a bomb meant to kill Stromsoe. Instead, the bomb kills Stromsoe's wife and son. For Tavarez, it's better than he planned.
"The bomb was meant for you," said Tavarez. "God put them there for reasons we don't understand."
"You blew up a woman and a little boy" [said Stromsoe].
"But you made it possible."
"You'll burn in hell for what you did."
"Hell would be better than this," said Tavarez. "Now you understand how bad it is; don't you? Living without the ones you love."
"If they ever let you out, I'll find and kill you," said Stromsoe.
"Life can be worse than death," said Tavarez. "So I'm going to let you live. Live first in the smell of their blood. Then live without them ..."
More than any act of violence, this passage in the book's fourth chapter underscores Tavarez's viciousness.
But there's more to the unusual history he and Stromsoe have had together. They were in marching band together. Stromsoe was a drum major "where drum majoring had long ago slipped down the list of high school cool." Tavarez played clarinet. Stromsoe's path in life was not surprising. Leading a marching band, he was driven and disciplined. A cop seemed a logical choice of career, and he became a private eye when the bomb blast ended that career. Tavarez, meanwhile, is a walking contradiction. In the marching band, he ran with the Delhi F Troop, a local Mexican street gang. He went on to become a stellar student at Harvard, but nonetheless rose later to the top of La Eme, the Mexican mafia and one of the most powerful prison gangs in the country. He finishes his first stretch in the slammer as a king in California's underworld.
In his role as "El Jefe," Tavarez's smarts serve him well. He has a cadre of corrupt guards providing him with computer access and "female companionship" during "family visits." From the confines of super-max Pelican Bay State Prison, he communicates with his lieutenants using an obscure Aztec dialect. He orders murders, yet all the while funnels monetary payments to friends in need. Tavarez is bold as hell, but he has one fear: solitary confinement in the prison's infamous "X," known to drive inmates insane.
Stromsoe is, from the very beginning of this story, a broken man slowly putting himself back together again. Following the blast, he spends two long years drinking himself stupid in a Miami hotel. (Parker mercifully skims over that part of Stromsoe's experience.) When a former fellow deputy rescues him from skid row, he puts Stromsoe back into the game, albeit privately. It's finally through the Frankie Hatfield case that he finds the missing piece that will help him restore his life: the weather lady herself.
Frankie is perhaps this book's most enigmatic figure. She's a TV meteorologist who hides from her public. She collects water from various rivers around the world in jars, from the mundane lesser-known rivers in her own state to the Danube and the Mississippi. She is, in her late 20s, still a virgin. (Parker sells this element by not dwelling too long on it.) She's a churchgoer who doesn't actually go to church. Her home sits in the middle of her family's apricot orchard. She is unflinchingly brave.
And she can make it rain.
Technically, Frankie can make it rain harder, using chemicals up on towers to coax an extra couple of inches out of passing rain clouds. Parker spares us the voodoo and paints this more as a believable technology that's actually been around awhile. The man described as her uncle, Charles Hatfield, actually existed, though his methods and results, while woven into the storyline here, were somewhat dubious. Nonetheless, Frankie is able to "accelerate moisture," and that puts her squarely in the crosshairs of DPW director Choate. And that, in turn, prompts her to hire Stromsoe to protect her. Stromsoe's pain and his need to overcome it attracts her. In turn, Frankie's unusual spirit wakes something up in Stromsoe. When Tavarez gets wind of this relationship, thanks to some scheming by Choate, Frankie becomes the perfect means for the gangster to brutalize Stromsoe all over again.
It's in developing supporting and minor players such as Choate that Parker shows himself to be a little more inconsistent. Choate is a dull sociopath in a suit, completely unlikable and without any of Mike Tavarez's passion and fear. As an antagonist, he's flat and dull. On the other hand, John Cedros, who starts out as yet another celebrity stalker shadowing Frankie Hatfield, turns out to be one of the more intriguing characters. Just when it appears Parker has revealed everything about him, he throws another layer onto Cedros, making him almost as complex and unpredictable as Frankie. It doesn't hurt, either, that Parker gives Cedros one tough partner in wife Marianna. We don't see nearly enough of her, but every scene she's in counts.
The shakiest moment for me came at the beginning of Storm Runners, when Stromsoe, in a bid to deal with his grief, grants an interview to a reporter named Susan Doss. The interview scenes fleshes the story out nicely, but then Parker ends them by having Doss rather clumsily throw herself at Stromsoe. Unlike Choate, whose flatness does serve a narrative purpose, Doss's final conversation with Stromsoe almost threw me out of the story. I suppose it was to convey sympathy for Stromsoe, but I felt the same gambit worked much better when Frankie appeared later in this yarn. The characters had time to get to know each other and build a bond at first. The author's impulse is the same with the Doss scene, but the earlier effort just seems a bit clumsy.
Storm Runners covers a lot of familiar territory, but Parker's skill with complex plots and characters blends those elements into something fresh and new. As his previous three novels have shown, he's not afraid to take chances. It pays off well in Storm Runners. | March 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for Reflections in a Private Eye, the newsletter of the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Winter now makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. He enjoys hiking and travel and is a rabid rock-trivia buff. Send kielbasa, as he misses Cleveland.