The House of Wolfe: A Border Noir
- By James Carlos Blake
- The Mysterious Press
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Darrell Delamaide
- March 26, 2015
This noir thriller kicks into high gear after a slow start.
If you like guns, gore, and grisly crime, then The House of Wolfe, a “Border Noir” thriller, has a perverse charm. The third in a series about a gunrunning family takes the reader into the seamy world along the Texas–Mexico border and to Mexico City, with its mix of fabulous wealth and abject poverty.
After a long setup, this action-adventure pays off with page-turning suspense. The Wolfes, like any good quasi-Mafia family, have their own rules and code of honor. They don’t engage in the drug trade with its indifference to human life; they only deliver guns to the cartels who engage in the drug trade. After all, if they didn’t do it, someone else would, right?
As one of the main narrators says at the outset: “Our principal calling has always been gunrunning. Highly illegal, but the way we see it, there are certain natural rights that transcend statute law, and the foremost of them is the right of self-defense. Without the right to defend yourself — and the right to possess the means to do it — all other supposed rights are so much hot air.”
Agree or disagree, this stance reflects the mentality not only of the residents of this patch of borderland but also of wide swaths of the country. However, having declared its colors, the Wolfe family does not get political about it, but goes about its business — in this case, rescuing a family member who was a member of a wedding party kidnapped in Mexico City.
The Wolfe family has a branch in the Mexican capital, and that is why Jessica Juliet Wolfe is attending the wedding that is targeted by a small-time gangster, El Galán, who wants to collect a multimillion-dollar ransom and buy his way into the operations of a big-time gang.
James Carlos Blake ably sketches the venues and cultures involved in this drama — from the glittery elite of Mexican society to the underclass of thugs and wannabes. He does it with an elaborate interweaving of not only points of view but also first and third person and present and past tense — to the point that Blake names the chapter headings after the featured character to alert the reader to which point of view he’s taking. Although this technique permits him to cover the full gamut of characters and action, it is distracting and somewhat confusing until you get used to it.
He lightens what is essentially a grim story of mayhem with surprising twists of humor, such as the “gang broker” who has become virtually impotent with age and disease but brings a dishy escort with him to a weekly breakfast meeting to pretend they have just spent an exciting night together.
The narrative technique also makes it difficult to identify a protagonist. The first-person narrator, Rudy, one of the family members who comes down from Texas to rescue Jessica, and Jessica herself, who of course turns out to be as resourceful as all the Wolfes, seem to be the dominant characters.
The shifting narrative also diffuses the suspense for the first two-thirds of the book, which kicks into high gear only in the climactic denouement as the moment of rescue finally comes. In the meantime, the reader explores the backstories for the various Wolfes and for El Galán and his gang. The narrative seems a trifle expository at times, but these fictional life histories lend dimension to the characters and their motives.
The sense of place — from the border bar scene at Wolfe Landing in Texas to the gated mansion communities and sinister garbage fire pits of Mexico City — is vivid and dramatic. The characters don’t shoot guns or pistols, but Glocks and Berettas, and they are always careful to check the chamber and magazine. The writing is lean and free from clichés, conveying an easy familiarity with the bilingual world that characterizes the regions on both sides of the border.
There are numerous twists as the meticulously planned snatch gradually unravels and the kidnappers are forced into desperate improvisations. I won’t spoil the ending — just keep in mind that all the Wolfes are fiercely dedicated crack shots and intrepid adventurers, so you determine the odds as to whether good triumphs over evil (or, if you will, the lesser evil triumphs over the greater evil).
This is, in short, a kind of fantasy romp that fits in with our popular culture of Marvel comic book characters and tales of derring-do. Before you know it, Netflix or Amazon will be streaming a mini-season of the Wolfe books, with characters and a culture similar to “Breaking Bad,” “The Bridge,” and other TV dramas.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based journalist and writer, is the author of Gold and The Grand Mirage.