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Triple Crossing

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In several posts over the last few weeks about books I’ve read or started to read or downloaded, I have mentioned two books that I started and deferred in favor of Alexandra Fuller’s two memoirs, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I was inspired to buy both deferred books — Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement and Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia — by reviews in the Wall Street Journal, and was enjoying each, but not enough to keep my mind from wandering. Then, three weeks ago, I made another spontaneous purchase based on a review, the review in the NY Review of Books by Malise Ruthven of Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.

Alas, after reading some way sin to Dabashi’s book, as well as returning to Crease and Egremont, I became distracted yet again, this time courtesy of the end-of-year listings of best books of various types, or by various reviewers, in the NYT. Their 100 notable books of 2011 listing over a month ago reminded me of three novels I had thought of reading: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. At the end of November, the NYT’s 10 best books of 2011 appeared online (it wasn’t printed until two Sundays later), and the selection of five best works of fiction included all three of the above, further motivating me to explore them further.

A week later, turning away from Dabashi, I did so, first by re-reading the NYT reviews of them. Then I downloaded the opening portion of Russell’s book onto my Kindle and decided maybe it wasn’t for me, at least not just now. I downloaded the opening of Harbach’s book and thought, yes, sure, I want to read this, but if I start it now (three weeks ago), it will really interfere with both work I needed to get done and, perhaps, any hope of finishing the three books I was in the midst of. I never did get around to downloading the opening of Obreht’s book, having decided that The Art of Fielding would be next, when I got to it.

To confuse matters, NYT crime/thriller reviewer Marilyn Stasio produced her look back on notable crime books of 2011. I have mentioned on several occasions that it was her regular report on crime books in the Sunday Book Review of Labor Day weekend that tipped me off to Martin Walker’s marvelous Bruno, Chief of Police crime series. She briefly reviewed the third of the books just as I was deciding what to read that coming week in Nantucket, prompting me to download the first one. What I didn’t mention was that two other books in that very same Stasio report intrigued me, and both were on her list of books of the year.

Stasio opened her September 4 review with a look at George Pelecanos’s latest novel, The Cut. There was a time when I read every new book by Pelecanos. I enjoyed the characters and the look at ordinary people’s lives in the DC away from the Mall. But I wearied of what I took to be the increasingly didactic nature of the books, the over-emphasis on fathers and sons and the importance of fathers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fathers, and the father-and-son relationship. I was just getting tired of reading Pelecanos’s treatment of them. As a result, The Cut didn’t make the cut.

Yet, three months later, Stasio was back with The Cut, listing it under the heading “Favorite New Sleuth”: “George Pelecanos’s new protagonist, Spero Lucas, is not only younger and friskier than most private eyes, he’s also untainted by the cynicism that goes with the profession. Making his first appearance in THE CUT, Lucas brings his lusty appetites and taste for danger to a vivid narrative about gang wars in Washington, D.C. The big question: Can Pelecanos keep his young hero from flaming out?”

I took another look, and decided I’m not ready to return to Pelecanos.

The other book Stasio wrote about in September that caught my eye was Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing: A Novel, about which Stasio said:

Reading Sebastian Rotella’s remarkable first novel, TRIPLE CROSSING, is like putting on night goggles: you see things you never knew were there. Rotella, who has covered crime in Latin America as a journalist, sets this thriller in the borderlands of San Diego and Tijuana, but takes the plot beyond the well-traveled fictional territory of Mexican drug cartels and beleaguered customs agents — all the way to the lawless “triple border” of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay where international smugglers and terrorists meet to do business.

Valentine Pescatore, an extremely likable young agent with the Border Patrol, represents the good guys for the United States. Leobardo Mén­dez, commander of an elite law-enforcement unit known as the Diogenes Group, carries the colors for the Mexicans. The pounding action scenes are driven by Rotella’s ferocious prose style, but it takes the night vision of a couple of decent cops to expose the scale of the violence, the level of the corruption, the sheer audacity of the ­criminals.

That was almost enough for me to download it in Nantucket. I didn’t only because of Stasio’s mention of violence. I feared it might push me beyond my limits, an odd thing perhaps to say when the book I was trying to choose for Nantucket reading would be next in line after I completed an old Lee Child/Jack Reacher thriller. Nonetheless, I decided I’d rather read about Bruno and the charms of life in the Dordogne than drug trafficking on the Mexican border.

And then Stasio gave Triple Crossing two awards in her end-of-year review: “Favorite Debut Novel” and “Favorite Action Thriller”. That was enough for me. I downloaded it, put aside Shi’ism and measurements and East Prussia, and commenced to learn about life on the border.

Was it great? You bet. I loved it. I finished it ten days ago, so it’s no longer fresh in my mind. I’ll let Stasio’s comments suffice, except to say that my one reservation is that I found one of the key relationships unconvincing. I put my doubts aside while reading the book. Looking back, though, I just don’t find it plausible.

By the way, according to the review of the book in the Washington Post in August, “John Malkovich’s production company has bought the rights to the novel and plans to convert it into a miniseries. It could be a good one.” (The review also mentions the same reservation that I have.)

One side benefit of my reading Triple Crossing is that I now know in some detail how Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet: the river junction, the bridges, and so on. Once the action shifts there, it’s well worth taking the time to look up the geography on google maps, as I did.

What next? Well, I had that book backlog I wanted to do something about, so I returned to Crease’s World in the Balance and finished it last week. It told some fascinating tales about measuring standards, starting with a chapter on China two thousand years ago and another on West Africa five hundred years ago, before getting to the heart of the matter, the introduction of the metric system in France in the aftermath of the revolution and subsequent developments around the world. Sometimes, though, the themes seem to be pushed in ways the story doesn’t entirely support, in what seems to be an effort to make a coherent book out of what initially was a series of independent articles. Plus, there are some annoying little editorial failures.

The one that bugged me the most, trivial though it was, was the need, on introducing a key character, Charles Saunders Peirce, to explain that his name is pronounced like “purse.” Sure, that’s true, and worth telling. But why was it not worth telling a hundred pages earlier when we met his father Benjamin? (Benjamin appears as the superintendent of the US Coast Survey, Charles as the first person to attempt to use the measurement of wavelengths of light as a natural length standard. I can’t mention Benjamin without also noting that he was the most important American algebraist of the nineteenth century, with contributions to the study of ring theory that every ring theorist — me, for instance — learns and uses.)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia in recent days, reaching not quite the halfway point yesterday. And what do you know? It’s reviewed by Richard Eder today in the NYT, not entirely flatteringly. I’ve been convincing myself that I enjoy Egremont’s meandering approach. A little World War I history here, a little World War II history there. A few words about one historical figure, then another. It’s not entirely clear why we spend so many pages in Ypres reading about British World War I war dead. Belgium’s a long way from East Prussia. But that’s the journey we sign up for when we read the book. Eder clearly has less patience for it than I do.

Will I make it to the end? Will I finish Dabashi’s look at Shi’ism? Or will I tackle Harbach’s The Art of Fielding?

That reminds me. There’s another option. In Stasio’s look back at 2011 she awards “Favorite Mystery with a Social Conscience” to Glaswegian author Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season: “Mina’s gritty Glasgow procedural features a female cop who takes pity on a 15-year-old killer because she’s witnessed the neglect that can produce such damaged children.” I downloaded the opening. My gosh! Talk about violence. I couldn’t get past the fourth page. Maybe the opening murder is as bad as it gets and I should keep going. Given my love of Glasgow, I just might enjoy it.

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