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book review

The Cartel
By Don Winslow, Knopf, 616 pages, $33

This is literally one of the most frightening books I've ever read. That's because it's not really fiction. Journalist Don Winslow, who's covered the Mexican drug wars for more than a decade, has changed the names and some places but the horrors he records are very real. In fact, if he's to be believed, the reality of murder and desperation are worse in reality. So, if you have a problem believing a tale told by an 11-year-old hit man, don't read on. The year is 2004 and, after years of Ronald Reagan's vaunted "War on Drugs," the gangs of narcotraficantes who run drugs into the United States are prosperous and powerful beyond imagining. DEA agent Art Keller has been on the front lines for 30 years. His target is Adan Barrera, head of one of the largest cartels, and it appears he's finally gotten him. But as the news tells us, cartel jefes don't stay in jail. Barrera gets out and starts to rebuild his empire and Keller goes rogue to stop him. Played out against the battle waged against the cartels by the Mexican government and the terrorist methods the cartels use to keep the people in line, this is a harrowing novel that should be read by every partier who thinks that a hit of heroin or a line of coke "doesn't hurt anybody."

The Precipice
By Paul Doiron, Minotaur, 336 pages, $29.99

Can a mystery with a Maine game warden as detective really stand up to the likes of Michael Connelly or T. Jefferson Parker? If the author is Paul Doiron and the game warden is Mike Bowditch, the answer is yes, with an exclamation point! The setting may be rural but the crime and detection are nature noir, if there can be such an item. This sixth book in the series has Mike and his biologist lady friend off on a holiday to Popham Beach. It ends when Mike is called back on emergency. Two women have disappeared while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Time is of the essence; the longer the women are lost, the worse the outcome. It helps the plot that Maine game wardens have all the responsibilities and rights of regular police so the investigation has everything from forensics to pure nature lore and that lifts this hunt way above regular cop-shop tales. Doiron loves his native state and that comes through in his wonderful use of the parks and rivers, along with his elegant spare prose. He's been nominated for an Edgar and an Anthony for other books in this series. He ought to win for this one.

By Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb, Random House Canada, 345 pages, $27.99

What does a series author do when he/she kills off her main character? Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock back from the dead. A number of authors have switched from the detective to the wife or the sidekick. Arnaldur Indridason has chosen the easiest and, often, the best solution: the prequel. So we have the early life of Erlendur Sveinsson, newly promoted detective, in Reykjavik, circa 1980, with a dead body and a rogue CIA agent loose. It's great! Why Indridason ended Erlendur's career and life is a mystery to me and many other readers. Certainly it wasn't because the series was running out of steam (the usual problem and one too many writers ignore) or the character had lost interest. But sending him back younger, more callow and, a bit naive, is a terrific idea and, with his usual gift for complex plotting, wonderful evocative setting and excellent character development, we have a whole new Erlendur with the promise of more on his early career to come. If you've never read Indridason, this is a great place to start, then read the rest of the series.

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