Rain Dogs by Baron R Birtcher
I suppose it’s a feature of my advancing age but I find myself wondering why people are so fascinated by crime and criminals. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on a television news channel without reports of some new crime. Why the curiosity? It’s hard to explain. Although the dates and times of the crimes differ, the essential facts are identical. Someone we don’t know has been raped, robbed or killed. It’s the same when we look for entertainment. No day goes by without a television program dealing with fictionalised crime. The cinema is overflowing with films showing us criminals at work. I suspect our interest is not that we want to learn about the phenomenon of crime. Rather we’re interested in peripheral or surprising features, e.g. that a ten-year-old could rob a bank with a toy handgun or that an armed gang could actually rob an armoured car in broad daylight — a phenomenon we tend to think only happens in Hollywood’s imagination. Or we see crime as a way of debating our view of morality or the politics of law enforcement, e.g. whether CEOs should be jailed when their corporations “lose” millions of dollars.
Taking this last question one step further, the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for all things criminal can also be used by government to shape opinion, say by showing that crime never pays or by emphasising that solving crimes often depends on the co-operation of members of the public passing on information or giving evidence as witnesses. Except, of course, the public stopped being naive many generations ago. There’s never been a great deal of public confidence in the police or the criminal justice agencies. Everyone knows the law is applied unequally depending on the nature of the crime and status of the alleged offender.
That’s presumably why I’ve noticed an increasing trend to use criminals as the protagonists in books and films. This assumes some degree of sophistication on the part of readers. Assuming they are not going to read or view the work as a how-to guide, the point of the creative work is to tell us something about why people commit crimes and, in some cases, to show them in a sympathetic light. In this, we’ve rather gone beyond the Victorian model of morality in potentially exculpating the parents who steal bread to feed their starving children. Now we see shades of amorality. There are good and bad criminals. Judging by films like Pain and Gain, there are even comedic murderers.
All of which brings me to Rain Dogs by Baron R Birtcher (Permanent Press, 2013) which is set in 1976 as the Columbians are about to move their hard drugs operation closer to the American border. In the first instance, they do so through the local soft drug networks. Later, they will come in person. Our first-person “hero” is a grower and dealer specialising in high-grade marijuana. He has fields both in California and Mexico. His partner is a pilot. Since their retirement from the military after two tours of duty in Vietnam, they have made a very good living out of trade. They have never been overly ambitious. They grow enough to satisfy market demand. Their prices are fair. They have enjoyed a quiet life. All that is going to come to an abrupt end as Columbian agents move into their part of California to take over the fields while, on the other side of the border, things also begin to change for the worse.
So our hero is a “good” criminal and he’s about to encounter some very “bad” criminals. In a parallel story arc, a youngish US cop who works on the border is also being sucked ever deeper into a corrupt relationship with the major crime boss on the Mexican side. Thematically, this is the “good” cop who’s seduced to the dark side and then wrestles with his conscience and seeks redemption. As you can see the morality play is set in motion. In order to escape with his life, our hero will have to fight at some point. The problem, of course, is how he’s going to avoid the police on both sides of the border while extricating himself from the escalating mess. There’s also the practicality of funding his disappearance. He’s lost his fields to the Columbian agents and half his last harvest to American law enforcement. There’s a rainy day fund, of course, but this is rather more of a deluge than he was expecting. If he’s to retire, he’ll need a new identity and enough money to establish himself somewhere quiet. There will be a price to pay for salvation. It’s the same for the cop. Like the titular rain dogs of the title, he’s a stray. When the dogs are accidentally caught out in a storm, the rain washes away the scent of their trails and they cannot find their way home. So how much must he pay for someone to show him how to return (if that’s actually possible)?
Putting aside my concerns about whether we should be rooting for the drug dealer or corrupt cop to escape, Rain Dogs proves to be a taut and exciting read. Watching the wheels slowly come off everyone’s wagons is fascinating. North of the border sees real stupidity at work. South of the border, greed and a drug-fueled delusion of invincibility sow the seeds of destruction as everything is resolved with the mandatory exchange of bullets and explosions. Overall, you can’t ask for a more effective thriller than this despite its moral ambivalence.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.