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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
It's been said that there are only three truly indigenous American art forms: the Western, the musical comedy, and the private eye story. The first two have passed through several cycles of rising and falling popularity, but the P.I. thriller has endured -- even flourished -- with remarkable consistency. Since its inception in the 1920s, the form -- together with its defining figure, the autonomous, wise-cracking private detective -- has assumed the status of 20th-century archetype and has continued to attract a steady stream of gifted new interpreters. Recent notable examples include Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, and Dennis Lehane. We can now add to that list Texas-born novelist Rick Riordan, whose excellent third mystery, The Last King of Texas, has just hit the shelves.
Riordan has been on a fast-track since the beginning of his career. His first two novels, Big Red Tequila and The Widower's Two-Step, were both paperback originals. Between them, they won virtually every major award the field offers, including the Shamus, the Anthony, and the Edgar. The Last King of Texas marks Riordan's overdue hardcover debut. Like the first two books, this one features Tres Navarre, a San Antonio private investigator with a Ph.D. in English.
As the novel opens, Tres is considering a position that utilizes all of his professional qualifications. Aaron Brandon, a professor of English at the San Antonio branch of the University of Texas, has just been murdered. The motive behind that murder remains unknown and may have been either personal or political. Following a job interview that is violently disrupted by the arrival of a letter bomb, Tres agrees to replace Brandon and assume his interrupted courseload while San Antonio homicide detectives continue to pursue his murderer.
The initial investigation into the victim's background reveals that, six years before, his own father -- a shady Texas entrepreneur named Jeremiah Brandon -- had also been murdered, shot down in a local bar by Zeta Sanchez, his employee and personal protégé. When police learn that Sanchez, who disappeared immediately after the shooting, has recently returned to town, the new investigation suddenly develops a focus. Eyewitness testimony, along with the subsequent discovery of incriminating physical evidence, once again points to Sanchez, who is arrested following a shootout in which a San Antonio deputy sheriff is seriously wounded.
This apparent solution to the Brandon murder is swift and convenient, but not -- from Tres Navarre's viewpoint -- altogether convincing. Disturbed by a number of discrepancies that the local district attorney seems determined to ignore, Tres pursues his own independent investigation, which takes him into the often sordid history of the Brandon family. Together with a fellow private detective, a beautiful, hard-edged homicide cop, and a violent, streetwise "pawnshop king" named Ralph Arguello, Tres comes gradually to a different -- and very surprising -- conclusion. Along the way, his researches illuminate the troubled past of Ines Brandon, Aaron's widow; the related history of Zeta Sanchez and his own abbreviated marriage; the bloody rituals of the San Antonio youth gangs; and the hidden connection between the Brandon family business -- repairing amusement rides for the Southwestern carnival circuit -- and the South Texas heroin trade.
There's nothing essentially new in any of this, but that's perfectly O.K. Riordan understands the conventions of his chosen form and works comfortably within them. His protagonist, Tres Navarre, is -- despite his admittedly unusual alternate profession -- an obvious lineal descendent of Philip Marlowe: brash, tough, loyal, and driven by an intensely personal ethical code. The narrative itself is swift, violent, and vivid, filled with gracenotes and effortlessly infused with the ambiance of the American Southwest. Most importantly, Riordan has given us a novel that realistically reflects the effects of violence on ordinary people: the men, women, and children who endure -- and sometimes even survive -- their traumatic encounters with a corrupt, increasingly inhuman society.
Familiar or not, The Last King of Texas is an engrossing, high-energy performance and a welcome addition to a crowded field. Riordan, clearly, is a writer to watch, and his narrator/hero, Tres Navarre, is a character who is well worth revisiting, who honors -- and extends -- the peculiarly American tradition from which he springs. (Bill Sheehan)