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Wednesday, 07 September 2011 14:07

Writing that transcends the mystery genre

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The fierce Santa Ana winds that blow through southern California are as much a recurring character in The Triggerman’s Dance as any of the troubled (and often doomed) people who scheme, deceive and betray each other in this tension-ridden novel. Frequently, just as the action reaches a suspenseful moment, just as T. Jefferson Parker’s protagonist finds himself facing threat, revelation or a bit of steamy romance ... the wind enters like some kind of whimsical deity that enjoys disrupting outdoor banquets, destroying expensive hairdos and playing havoc with everybody’s studied poise. Capable of speeds ranging for 60 to 100 miles an hour, a Santa Ana can knock down golfers, hunting parties and picnickers and send them racing for cover. Their frequent and abrupt arrival in The Triggerman’s Dance seems to be a way of reminding everyone that nothing is important ... least of all, the schemes of the arrogant, wealthy and powerful men who attempt to control the lives of others.

Just a short time ago, John Menden thought he was on the brink of having it all: He wrote a popular column in a small newspaper (The Anza Valley News), lived  in a remote section of Orange County where he fished and hunted with his three adorable dogs; cooks; drinks too much; and plans to marry a girl named Rebecca (who just happens to be engaged to somebody else). Then, on a rainy afternoon, Rebecca is gunned down ... shot twice as she crosses a parking lot to her car. Who did it, and more importantly, why? When Menden quits his job and spend much of the following six month in a deep, alcoholic depression, he decides that there is only one possible answer. Rebecca’s death was a mistake. The real target was Susan Baum, an aging, eccentric journalist who has a knack for offending the wrong people ... people like Vann Holt, one of Orange County’s arch conservatives who practices his own form of brutal racism while running a right-wing security empire that has bases in foreign countries.

However, one of the unique merits of The Triggerman’s Dance is the fact that Vann Holt is a fascinating and provocative character. Parker is not content to paint Holt as a black-hearted, arrogant, egotist. Holt is likable! The reader learns that almost a decade ago, Holt walked away from a distinguished career with the FBI, abandoned his religion and devoted himself to building an impressive empire complete with his own military force. Secure in a fortress-like retreat in the mountains above Cosa Mesa, Holt wages his own personal war on Chinese and Mexican drug lords and career criminals. His soldiers, called Holt Men, perform a slick and highly effective version of vigilante justice. It is the tragedy that made Holt into a kind of avenging angel that gives this novel its greatest appeal.

Holt’s son and wife were shot down by a deranged drug addict. Patrick, the son, died and Caroline, Holt’s wife, suffered severe brain damage that left her a deranged invalid. In the midst of Holt’s  grief, he learns that Susan Baum had been using her popular column to infer that Patrick was a rapist who preyed on Mexican girls while he pretended to be a kind of social worker for the Church of Latter Day Saints. Taking his daughter, Valerie, the only surviving member of his family, Holt retreats to a mountainous section called Top of the World, and begins to plot his revenge. In addition to purging the world of drug addicts (especially Mexican and Chinese), he  wants to kill a woman he has never met ... the woman who destroyed his son’s good name and made his wife a deranged invalid.

However, our cast of characters is not complete without Joshua Weinstein, FBI agent, who, like Vann Holt, is obsessed with vengeance. Joshua was engaged to Rebecca, and had learned one day prior to her death that she was in love with another man. With his fellow agent (and sometime lover) Sharon Dumars, he begins a dogged surveillance of John Mendon. The despondent lover drinks and broods, apparently indifferent to the fact that he is being stalked by Rebecca’s ex-fiance.

The heart of The Triggerman’s Dance is Weinstein’s scheme to bring down Vann Holt and destroy the complex network of security and surveillance operations that he has created. When he finally approaches Mendon, he learns that the boozing journalist shares his obsession.  Together, they will track down and destroy the man who killed Rebecca — Vann Holt. The plan is to find a way for Mendon to infiltrate Van Holt’s fortress and find proof of Holt’s guilt. To accomplish that end, Weinstein and Mendon devise a daring plan in which Mendon “rescues” Holt’s daughter, Valerie from a near-rape at a local tavern by a vicious motorcycle gang. If this novel has a weak link, it is this dramatic rescue in which the gang (all FBI agents) creates havoc by brutalizing Mendon, killing one of his dogs and burning his trailer. When the smoke clears, Valerie has been “rescued” and the gang of lawless crackheads has vanished down the highway, Mendon is left to deal with the gratitude of a thankful father who invites the hero home.

It is not all smooth sailing. Vann Holt is paranoid by nature and he has surrounded himself with a devoted staff who are immediately suspicious of Mendon. In fact, several of Vann Holt’s “inner circle” tell Mendon that they know he is a fraud, but they can’t prove it ... yet. To complicate matters further, Mendon falls in love with Valerie and begins to ponder the fact that his mission is to destroy her father. Since Mendon is subjected to constant surveillance, much of his time is spent developing schemes for passing messages to Weinstein or attempting to allay Vann’s suspicions by actually participating in some of his vigilante raids.

Anyone who is a fan of F. Jefferson Parker will readily acknowledge that this author’s greatest gift is an uncanny talent for developing tension and suspense. The Triggerman’s Dance qualifies as a classic example of Parker’s craft.  However, there is more going on here than action that makes the reader hold his breath. The author’s narrative often transcends a typical murder mystery formula. Certainly, the skillful details that defines Vann Holt’s personality, often comes near to making him a sympathetic character. Certainly, there is more to this tortured and complex man than can be summed up by dismissing him as an arrogant bigot.

If you are unfamiliar with F. Jefferson Parker and appreciate quality crime fiction, you might check out any of a dozen novels that are readily available.

 

The Triggerman’s Dance by T. Jefferson Parker. Hyperion Press, 1998. 540 pages.

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