If you are one of those readers who has a grudging respect for outlaws, and if you find yourself sometimes fantasizing about putting on a mask, stealing a fast car — say, a Corvette 706 with 505 horses under the hood — and roaring through the night into some abandoned warehouse where a scummy bunch of crooks are dividing up their spoils (stolen diamonds, drug deal profits, etc.); if you dream of firing a couple of warning shots from your trusty pistol, scooping up all of that money/contraband and then speeding away into the night, well, dear readers, T. Jefferson Parker’s L. A. Outlaws is the book for you.
This fast-paced crime fiction opus is designed to give the reader a delicious, forbidden thrill as we speed through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles with Allison Murietta, the sensual, dangerous great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of the legendary outlaw, Joaquin Murietta. Joaquin was hunted down, murdered and beheaded in 1853 and his head was once exhibited floating in a jar of alcohol in California sideshows. However, his descendant, Allison Murietta, has become something of a celebrity. She robs KFCs, Starbucks, Taco Bells, Burger Kings, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes and Dennys — chains that Allison calls “poverty boxes” because they exploit their employees (Allison has worked in those places). She always leaves a business card, “You have been robbed by Allison Murietta, Have a Good Day!” before she strides through the exit, brandishing her derringer, Canonita (a kind of small, modified shotgun that has no accuracy after 10 feet). Invariably, Allison gives the money to charities (well, most of it).
Now, for a bit of unadorned fact. Alllison Murietta is actually a 32-year-old prize-winning schoolteacher named Suzanne Jones. Although she has a lifestyle that is totally out of sync with a teacher’s salary, she manages to maintain her wild adventure (she is a gifted car thief) while living with her husband (her third) and three sons on a large California ranch. She readily admits that she is unstable, shockingly carnal and has a tenuous grasp of reality. In effect, she seems to know that her criminal career is probably going to end with her in a shootout and dying on the floor of a Dennys.
In the meanwhile, she expects to enjoy the best — wine, sex, expensive clothes, cars and thrills. She often observes that she is never more alive than when she is waving Canonita in the faces of terrified employees and awestruck customers. Eventually, her audience starts clapping and the security camera film in the robbed stores starts to show up on TV. Allison loves the camera and often poses with the manager of the store she has just robbed.
However, what really makes L. A. Outlaws purr and shimmy like a stock car at the Indianapolis 500 is T. Jefferson Parker’s talent for developing tension and character. Especially noteworthy are two remarkable men, a cop and a killer. Both are destined to affect the destiny of Allison Murietta. Lupercio Maygar, a bandy-legged, little Salvadorian assassin will make your skin crawl. Born in the slums of El Salvador, Lupercio survived by learning to be “unremarkable.”
After he finds both his brother and his father in the pile of dead bodies that are dumped each night in a landfill, Maygar migrated to L. A. where he quickly became involved in the vicious drug wars — an assassin for hire. His weapon of choice is a machete (which, like Alllison’s derringer, has been “reconditioned” to house a shotgun in the handle). Even after murdering 12 gang members, Maygar is never arrested due to the fact that there are no witnesses to his crimes.
At the other end of the spectrum is Charlie Hood, a patrolman who is troubled by his dreams of a slaughter that he witnessed in Iraq. Now that he is back in L. A., he is struggling to create a purpose for living and since he finds himself surrounded by corrupt law officials and burgeoning violence, he is beginning to lose faith in what he is doing ... until the night that he stops a speeding Corvette and meets Suzanne Jones, who gives new meaning to the term “flirt.” The next day, he learns that a bloody massacre has occurred in an automobile repair shop near the place where he stopped Suzanne.
The reason that Suzanne is “out and about” that night is that her “other self,” Allison Murietta, has picked up on a rumor of a big diamond heist — the spoils of which are about to change hands in an auto repair shop. Not content with the modest sums that she gets in the chain stores and fast-food joints, Allison dreams of making the big steal — a half million or so in uncut diamonds.
However, when she arrives at the auto shop prepared to fire a warning shot into the air, demand the stolen goods and speed away, she gets a shock: the shop contains 10 heavily armed (but dead) men ... a shootout and no survivors. When she finds the diamond in a backpack, she thinks her dream has come true. When she hears footsteps, she hides and watches a small man with a machete move silently through the building and vanish. The diamonds will buy her the comfort and security that she needs to spend the rest of her life ... nurturing her three sons and pursuing sensual pleasures. When the midget with the machete is gone, she stashes the diamonds in her Corvette and speeds away — only to meet Patrolman Charlie Hood a few miles down the road.
The reader eventually learns that the local crime lord has dispatched Lupercio Magar to pick up a shipment of stolen diamonds from a jewelry store owner. Magar arrives to find the same bloody massacre. Someone has been there before him and they left with the diamonds. Lupercio gets in his cherished 1973 Lincoln and begins cruising the surrounding roads where he eventually finds ... one highway patrolman, a feisty woman and a Corvette. Of course, he drives on, but Suzanne and Lupercio have seen each other now.
Eventually, Lupercio figures it out. Allison Murietta/Suzanne Jones has the diamonds, but worse than that, she saw him when he passed silently through the murder scene. No one has seen Lupercio and his machete and lived. This woman must die. For those of you who have seen Javier Bardem as the relentless murderer in “No Country for Old Men,” be assured that there is something that is as inexorable in the tiny killer Lupercio Magar.
Aside from the teeth-gritting tension in L.A. Outlaws, this novel is also filled with a lot of hot breath and passion. Yes, Charlie Hood and Suzanne Jones can’t keep their hands off each other. Of course, Charlie suspects Suzanne’s “real identity,” but each time he decides to do something about it, he finds himself keeping another rendezvous. Suzanne/Allison is paranoid and feels that Charlie is about to betray her. All of this guilt and paranoia seems to merely add more zest to the sex.
L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker. Dutton, 2008. 371 pages.