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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An American Even Uglier than the One Burdick and Lederer Wrote About

By Lisa Brackmann
311 pages
(Soho Press; 2012)
ISBN 978-1-61695-071-2

Michelle Mason is taking a break from clearing up her late husband’s messy business affairs in Puerto Vallarta when she meets Daniel, a fellow American who says he flies charters for rich clients. A romance blooms and she is in the sack with her new friend when two masked thieves attack.

This is the set-up for Getaway, a novel about narcotrafficantes, crooked cops and the American enablers who make the multi-billion dollar drug trade possible.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Michelle’s husband was a crook who ripped off his real estate development clients and pissed away the cash he stole. We learn about America’s direct involvement in drug imports and the unscrupulous agencies responsible for it. We are educated in the flagrant corruption of the Mexican authorities – and the ways in which U.S. officials encourage it. 

And we find out Michelle’s new boyfriend, Daniel, is a player of some sort in the drug smuggling business and has run afoul of another sketchy American, Gary, who either gives him his orders or works for those who do.

Out of thousands of books about drug trafficking, there are two things that put Getaway in a class by itself. One of them is that it places American officialdom at the center of the illegal international drug market.

Most novels set in the world of drug dealers make Americans the good guys: earnest boy scouts out to end narcotics trafficking forever; in Getaway, however, the Americans are enablers and participants in the drug trade. Gary, the éminence grise of the novel, works for an unnamed U.S. agency and is trying to keep the jaded and reluctant Daniel in the narcotics racket.

He clearly has ties to government officials inside and outside the U.S. and is capable of inserting himself into the most delicate personal affairs of the Americans he meets. 

Brackman, the author of Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, both set in China, lets us know that Gary is involved in the drug world right up to his eyeballs, which means that at one level, at least, U.S. policy favors the brutal savagery of the cartels. 

He uses his shadowy connections to have Michelle arrested for drug smuggling, manipulates her personal finances to control her movements and actions, and has her passport seized by the authorities. He also cunningly warns her against telling the U.S. consulate about her situation and subtly uses force to blackmail her into spying on Daniel and others

The book is reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film in which a common citizen must battle a complex conspiracy he or she doesn’t understand. If Michelle doesn’t learn who is doing what and why, she will either end up in a Mexican prison or dead in the Puerto Vallarta landfill.

Brackmann makes it clear that no one cares about Gary’s activities or involvement in international crime. Unspoken is the fact that he is operating with the connivance of both U.S. and Mexican authorities. 

Author Lisa Brackmann

In the average drug thriller, dope dealers are brutes and American officials are trying to wipe them out; in Getaway, the Americans are at least as vicious and unprincipled as the narcotics smugglers and the corrupt Mexican officials that protect them.
The disconnect between American ideals and practical action is made even more disturbing by the fact that Gary is neither a monster nor some mindless fascist bureaucrat who is "just following orders."

Instead he is portrayed as a capable and intelligent fellow: an excellent judge of human character and a man with a sense of humor -- though possibly a little twisted in his concept of what is funny and what isn't. 

He is, in fact, the kind of American contractor who wins praise from his supervisors for demonstrating initiative under challenging circumstances. Let's just forget that sometimes -- think Blackwater, here -- those contractors don't follow the Boy Scout credo.

Carefully hidden in this novel’s plot is a real life history lesson: Brackmann makes it clear that the U.S. government has been involved in international drug smuggling at least since the Indochina conflict. She does a first-rate job of bringing that involvement forward to the present, including a neatly delivered summary of how in the 1980s the Central Intelligence Agency helped smuggle Central American cocaine to finance illicit arms sales to the government of Iran.

To her credit, she finds a way to make this backstory medicine go down without effort, largely by having a specific character impart critical information about it to Michelle during a key conversation that sets up later developments in the plot.

Aside from its willingness to examine American drug trafficking, the other thing that sets Getaway  apart from many similar adventure yarns is the grit of the main female character, Michelle. The woman, plunged into a perilous situation, is beaten, attacked and abandoned in a garbage dump littered with drug war corpses, threatened with guns and subjected to a variety of other horrors that would frighten the average person into silence. Still she finds the gumption to fight back.

Not only is Michelle tough and resilient, but she has a first-rate brain. She retains her skepticism about everyone who fails to earn her trust, despite her desperate circumstances.  She moves through the novel with both eyes open, leery of everyone around her, watching for snares and traps that could put her and her family’s lives at risk.

The suspense builds from page one, the characters are crisp and sharply drawn and the plot, while labyrinthian, is plausible and riveting. Even better, Brackmann has a penetrating eye for the sharp detail that sells a character or setting, helps to build tension or does all three at once. 

For example, shortly after Daniel is assaulted, Michelle realizes their cell phones may have been switched by the intruders. She goes looking for him and obtains his apartment address through a bit of clever detective work. When she finds his flat, she enters, fumbling her way through the gloom.

Her eyes adjusted. It wasn't really dark. There was enough light seeping through the curtains, from the open door.

The living room. This was the living room. It was simple, hardly anything in it. A couch. A chair. A television. A coffee table.

On the coffee table was something dark, an oval shape with protrusions she couldn't make out. The thing almost seemed to shimmer, as though its lines were mutable, fluid, shifting ever so slightly.

She approached the table and a cloud of flies rose from the object.

A head.

The greater the pressure Gary, drug dealers and Mexican police bring to bear, the sharper Michelle’s tongue becomes. By the last third of the book, her anger at being used as a spy and cats-paw is palpable.  As a consequence, the book’s denouement is swift and violent, though not in a way the reader might have expected.

I heard author Brackmann at a Left Coast Crime forum last month on the growing role of crime novels as a vehicle for exploring social problems. 

The discussion was fascinating, but when the main presentation was over, I found myself wondering why crime writers concentrate on trailer trash, penny ante crooks and drug abusers as major characters in their books instead of writing about big-time corporate and government criminals like the people who poison the environment, corrupt our political system and rob our retirement funds with obvious frauds like the “derivative” schemes that nearly destroyed the economy in the early 2000s.

When I posed that question to the panelists, it seemed to take Brackmann aback. “That’s who I write about,” she said.

At that point I knew I had to give Getaway a try. And Brackmann, it turns out, is just as good as her word: she writes here about U.S. government corruption clearly and convincingly, focusing on criminals who are often overlooked because they are simply following our country's official policies. 

Getaway is a first-rate novel -- crisp, sharp and full of disturbing action sequences that will give you pause before you mail that check to the Internal Revenue Service next week. If you decide to hold onto your money, however, be sure not to buzz it around; you could end up the victim of some duplicitous bastard like Gary, facing trumped-up criminal charges or an anonymous grave in a Mexican garbage dump. 

In other words, you might wind up another example of our tax dollars at work. . . 

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