by Sebastian Rotella
Mulholland Books, 2017
The crime that kicks off Sebastian Rotella's lightning-bolt new thriller Rip Crew is a thing of multifold darkness: ten women, all illegal migrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, are being smuggled across the US border at San Diego when they're abducted by a “rip crew” aiming to scalp the profits in human trafficking they represent. The rip crew – and the women – are then found dead in a hotel room back across the border. It's a story taken from the world of illegal immigration Rotella came to know intimately during his time reporting on US-Mexican border issues (some of which is recounted in his gripping 1998 nonfiction book Twilight on the Line), rendered all the more tragically topical in light of the anti-immigration hysteria stirred up by the 2016 US Presidential election.
In Rotella's novel, sexy hero Valentine Pescatore is tasked by a powerful Homeland Security executive (and his former lover, of course) with looking into what happened and who was responsible, despite the brutal simplicity of the end results (“That's what rip crews are like. Worse than narcos, worse than human smugglers. Pure predators”). Pescatore, a lean, efficient fighter with a passionate nature, agrees to take the case after looking at the desolating evidence:
The photos from the crime scene were not especially bloody or lurid. Not sadism, just extermination. The scene was a dingy motel room. The women had been lined up and mowed down. Corpses were crumpled on a frayed brown carpet, slumped against walls, sprawled across a bed whose cover was decorated with images of tropical birds.
And once the hero is involved, a crew of fellow heroes is quickly assembled, including the novel's best-realized character, journalist and family man Leo Méndez, “morbid by nature, nationality, and profession.” And as readers of this kind of high-octane action-thriller will be able to predict, the investigation steadily darkens and complicates into something neither Pescatore nor his employer could have imagined.
Rotella is a virtuoso of action-writing, which is no small distinction given how easy such writing is to bungle, and that alone makes Rip Crew a fantastic read. But this author is also a fine observer of small details, with an extremely sensitive ear for narrative tension, and his attention to rounding and fleshing out even his minor characters never lags and is never heavy-handed. The ultimate eee-vil reveal is a touch on the guessable side, but the whole thing is pulled off with such unblinking conviction that readers will find it completely irresistible. And they'll read the book's last page really hoping to read another Pescatore/Méndez adventure.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.