by T. Jefferson Parker
Published by Hyperion
360 pages, 2003
Behind Blue Eyes
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
T. Jefferson Parker's new novel, Cold Pursuit, is soaking in it.
In fact, so is everyone in this book, from its lonely protagonist, San Diego homicide cop Sergeant Tom McMichael, on down. They're all marinating in misery and wallowing in woe. Mistakes and failures and unanswered questions from the past dog these characters, haunting them, lingering like old scabs that refuse to heal. Not that they can't quite stop picking at them, mind you ...
By the luck of the draw (and because it's their turn on the rotation), McMichael and his partner, Hector Paz, are called to the murder scene of one of San Diego's "local badass hero[es]." Pete Braga is a hometown legend, a former Portuguese tuna boat captain-turned-port commissioner and business tycoon, and still a fiery political force to be reckoned with. But that clout doesn't help Braga when someone sneaks up on the more-or-less-retired 84-year-old and beats him to death with a FishWhack'r, a club generally used to kill tuna.
The cause of death may be pretty straightforward, but nothing else in this convoluted case is. And that's the way the whole book goes. Even Tom at first seems pretty simple. A potential suspect he's grilling tells him his psychology is embarrassingly primitive. Tom's only retort: "I'm a primitive cop."
But, of course, he isn't. In this kind of novel, nobody is ever quite what they appear. Even to the characters themselves. There's a lot of denial going on, as well, and still waters don't just run deep -- more often than not, they run very troubled, indeed.
Part of what troubles Tom is his own complicated history with the Braga family. It's not enough that Pete Braga "accidentally" killed Tom's Irish grandfather during a dispute over wages back in the summer of 1952, during their tuna fishing days, and was never punished. Or that Tom's father, Gabriel, is rumored to have subsequently attacked Pete's then 13-year-old son, Victor, behind the Waterfront Bar, giving the boy such a severe beating that he was left with the permanent mental capacity of a 10-year-old. No, you also have to factor in Tom's torrid teenage affair with Patricia, Pete's tempestuous, headstrong daughter, which ended badly.
Now toss all of this stuff from the past atop Detective McMichael's troubled present: he's recently (and unhappily) divorced, living in a crappy apartment and missing his son, terribly. Tom's father is an alcoholic, who can barely take care of himself. And the one woman in the sergeant's life who he thinks might make it better is Pete Braga's young, attractive trophy nurse, Sally Rainwater, who happens to be the prime suspect in her employer's murder. And she's not exactly a picture of fine mental health, either.
Given these complicated and tangled links, particularly Tom's relationship with the Braga clan, it's downright amazing that his superiors don't reassign the homicide investigation to another officer in the very first chapter of Cold Pursuit. But, hey, some of those higher-ups are almost as screwed up as Tom is. Instead, they allow McMichael to sink deeper and deeper into the case. But if you can suspend that giant clunker of implausibility, you're in for a treat here, because this Parker guy sure knows how to tell a tale.
Not that it's exactly a joyride, though. Tom isn't the only one hurting in this book -- there's more than enough regret to go around. Parker's characters are people who have made serious mistakes in their lives, and seem doomed (or possibly damned) to keep on making them. The past eats at them like a cancer.
At one point, Tom puts on a brave face and tries to reassure Patricia, his old girlfriend, by telling her that "People can surprise you." But it's a hollow reassurance at best, one that even Tom doesn't quite believe. Alone with his thoughts, he concludes that "a truth can heal but a lie is an open sore, year after year, generation after generation."
Against this gloomy background, Parker spins a dazzling yarn of murder, betrayal, hatred, revenge, greed and corruption. The mercurial Braga didn't get where he was by being afraid to make enemies, and the growing list of suspects begins to read like a who's who of San Diego's movers and shakers -- on both sides of the law, and even extending across the border into Mexico. Real-estate developers, city council members, the Catholic Church, a smuggling ring, the police force itself -- as well as assorted members of both the Braga and McMichael families -- all fall under suspicion, as motives and secrets shift and change, each twist of this kaleidoscope of a plot obscuring as much as it reveals. Was the motive a simple matter of present-day greed, or something far darker and more perverse, rooted in the tortured past of a family feud that refuses to die?
Cold Pursuit is definitely not a book for the easily depressed, but if you stick with it, it has its own curious way of being life-affirming. Tom, despite his many failures and shortcomings, is essentially a decent man, and it's his rock-steady belief in the truth and his dogged determination to unearth it, whatever the consequences, and to cut loose the shadows of the past, that drives this novel. As one character puts it, "Stuff like that builds up, man, it fucking builds up. Pretty soon, it blows."
He ain't kidding. The conclusion, when it comes, is explosive.
This isn't just a dark book, it's a hard one. But, to his credit, Parker doesn't overdo the mean streets shtick, adapting a street-level acceptance of the way things are instead of rubbing our faces in it. When Tom questions a hooker about the disappearance of a colleague, her rueful observation that "No whore ever disappeared because something good happened to her" is served straight up, without garnish or comment from Tom. It's just a fact of life. Next question.
It's this sort of cop-level, no-nonsense attitude that saves the book from it's own excesses. Because 40 years ago, this sort of noir-tinged psychological high drama would have found a home in the pages of a Gold Medal paperback original. But where the GM paperbacks were tight and hard, lean and mean, Cold Pursuit seems at times almost too self-consciously grim, a little too wrapped up in its own contemporary melodrama to hit the sheer exhilarating heights and pulpy thrills of its 35-cent predecessors. At close to 400 pages, it's twice the length of most paperbacks from the glory days of pulp fiction.
Still, that was then, and this is now, and there's no need for the past to haunt Parker the way it does his characters. Parker, whose 2001 title, Silent Joe, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, knows what his readers want, and he delivers the goods in Cold Pursuit -- another fine, dark, slow-burn thriller. He seamlessly merges the "just the facts, ma'am" play-by-play of the classic police procedural with the brooding bittersweet exhumation of the past that Ross Macdonald excelled in. But even better, Parker manages to infuse his story with some grim humor and almost-poetic stylistic flourishes all his own. | May 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently lurking around the Los Angeles area.