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BOOK REVIEW

'The Renegades' by T. Jefferson Parker

March 28, 2009|Dick Lochte

T. Jefferson Parker's new novel, "The Renegades," reads as if it might be the middle book of a trilogy about Southern California lawmen and lawbreakers, written with the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" playing in the background.

Book One, last year's "L.A. Outlaws," was, as its title suggests, devoted to the lawbreakers, chief among them a good-bad antiheroine, Suzanne Jones, a charismatic eighth-grade history teacher and mother of three who transforms herself by night into a dashing feminist version of her ancestor, the 19th century California outlaw Joaquin Murrieta.

Under her nom-de-crime, Allison Murrieta, she's unquestionably the star of the novel but not its protagonist. That would be the less dazzling, freshly badged, dedicated Deputy Sheriff Charlie Hood, who, in the course of pursuing Allison, falls under her spell.

Since their noir romance ends on a definite down note, it seemed safe to assume that the novel, like most of the author's oeuvre, was a self-contained work.

But now, as if to flout that assumption, Deputy Charlie Hood has returned alone and adrift in Antelope Valley, bemoaning his lost love while prowling the high desert, a location that allows Parker to make the observation, "There were no antelope in the Antelope Valley until the twentieth century, when some were released so the valley could live up to its name, a California thing, to dream big and fill in the details later." That perfectly constructed sentence, clever enough to make other writers gnash their teeth in admiration, is what you get with Parker, along with deft characterization and hard-boiled action played out against smartly detailed Southern California landscapes.

This time the emphasis is on lawmen -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Hood is one of the good, of course, "a man of the present, used to following his heart, which had gotten him mixed results." An example of the bad would be his short-lived partner, Terry Laws, a well-liked deputy whose murder in the opening chapter prompts Hood to join Internal Affairs to investigate the secrets that may have led to his death. Laws' former partner, Reserve Deputy Coleman Draper, is definitely the ugly: a cool sociopath, who (in the novel's only sections told in first person, present tense) brags of committing several murders and beatings that he deemed necessary to maintain a lucrative weekend job of transporting tons of cocaine cash to a brutal drug lord in Mexico.

Just as Murrieta, an outlaw of yore, served as the iconic figure of last year's novel, that honor here goes to the Renegades, a group of tough deputies stationed in the South Los Angeles area in the not-too-long-ago. They formed a wrecking crew, complete with ankle tattoos of crossed six guns, and held sway until one of their own broke the code by staging private drug raids and selling the confiscated goods.

Lt. Jim Warren, who conscripts Hood into Internal Affairs, had been one of the Renegades, prompted by his hatred for his fallen crew member to become a dedicated IA investigator. "He had this thing for catching bad guys," a fellow officer explains to Hood, "and he just switched it over to catching bad cops." That category would definitely include the ruthless Draper who, while still in his teens, saw a fire consume his parents and two siblings. The novel is unclear, however, as to whether the tragedy was a cause of his sociopathy or the effect of it.

Another unanswered question is the fate of a second character carried over from "L.A. Outlaws," Suzanne's bright, agile, remarkably self-assured teenage son, Bradley, whose involvement in the Hood-Draper game of cat-and-mouse is limited but crucial. The novel ends with him telling Hood and Warren of his desire to become a lawman. But his motive is unclear. Is he sincere in wanting to serve as one of the good guys or is he a chip off the old Murrieta block, eager to use the badge to facilitate criminal acts?

One hopes a third book in the series will provide that answer and allow Hood the opportunity to prove that he has, in the words of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, "still got the jive to survive with the heroes and villains."

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Lochte is the author of 10 novels, including the comedy-thriller "Croaked!"

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