Have you ever suspected that devils walk among us, insidious creatures who pretend to be as benevolent as you or I, but who in truth exist to inject chaos into our world?
These reflections are inspired by T. Jefferson Parker’s new novel, The Famous and the Dead, which features numerous devils in its cast, along with the thugs, drug lords and crooked cops who are native to the genre. Parker delivers a tale that is not only well-plotted and suspenseful but also subtle, surprising and endearingly perverse.
This is the sixth and last of his novels about the Los Angeles County lawman Charlie Hood. Charlie has been assigned to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He’s now in San Diego, pursuing some Kentucky lowlifes who came to California to deal in guns and soon advanced to selling Stinger missiles to the Mexican cartels.
Charlie becomes the scapegoat of a Fast and Furious-style scandal in which a thousand automatic weapons reach Mexico, and one of them is used to assassinate a U.S. congressman.
The more interesting part, underlying everything else, concerns devils and angels. The chief devil, who has figured in the earlier Hood novels, is Mike Finnegan, who purports to deal in bathroom products but in fact deals in souls, although he would say he simply enters into partnerships.
As Mike explains it, he and his fellow devils are much like those Milton presented in Paradise Lost. They claim to be in rebellion against a dictatorial God to bring freedom to humankind.
We who work for the Prince know that our best tool is chaos, he explains, but our goal for you is not chaos at all, but choice. Asked whether he’s a devil, Mike replies: We rarely use that word, but yes. I’m one of many. And there are angels, too, and they have us outnumbered roughly ten to one.
We meet an angel named Beatrice, whom Mike has kept prisoner for 96 years at the bottom of a mine shaft (she’s been praying a lot), but who is rescued. Beatrice is a sweetheart once she’s regained her strength – 96 years in a mine shaft is hard even on an angel – and she gladly adds her angelic powers to Charlie’s campaign to put Mike out of business.
Parker has plenty of fun with this story, but he’s serious, too. Where is the line between flesh-and-blood criminality and evil of supernatural origin? He complicates the debate by having Charlie’s wife, a doctor who’s an atheist, reject all talk of heaven and hell: These are stories we’ve told ourselves to answer the fear and mysteries of death.
It’s an old question: Can we sinners offer that beloved defense, The devil made me do it? Or are some of us simply born no damn good? The debate rages on, but Parker lets the angels triumph, at least for a while.