James L’Etoile’s award-winning crime thriller Dead Drop takes a 360-degree look at the intertwined issues of illegal immigration, drug and arms smuggling, and unfettered violence plaguing the southwest United States and the challenges they present law enforcement. After a career spent in the California penal system, L’Etoile has seen these problems play out first-hand. In this action-packed story, you do too.
When it comes to the illegal border crossers, Phoenix, Arizona, detective Nathan Parker tries vainly to hold on to the principle, “Yes, they’re desperate, but what they’re doing is against the law.” But when he’s faced with some of the realities the immigrants confront—and, ultimately, when he becomes an illegal border crosser himself—he starts not just to see, but to appreciate the other side of the story.
In this novel, the immigration issue has many troubling dimensions—fentanyl trafficking, rapacious coyotes, weapons galore, disregard for human life, and the spotty coordination of federal, state, and local efforts to combat any of these. The quest for personal and organizational glory makes inter-agency cooperation more difficult, as always.
While the U.S. Attorney is working to create an airtight case against the drug smugglers—a process that’s taking literally years—people are dying in real time. One of them was Parker’s long-time partner, a death for which Parker blames himself. A new lead appears when a cell phone number is found on a dead man. He’s one of four found in the desert, sealed up in 55 gallon oil drums. Parker’s encounter with the owner of that cell phone leads to his suspension from the force.
The barrels were discovered by Billie Carson, a woman living on the raggedy margins of society, scavenging whatever she can find abandoned in the desolate landscape. Billie has learned how to navigate a dysfunctional support system and, contrary to his expectations, Parker learns a lot from her. Suspended, he isn’t supposed to keep investigating any link to his partner’s shooting, but (of course) he does, and Billie and he may be at risk because of their connection with the bodies in the barrels.
Given all the players—criminals, law enforcement, bystanders, innocent or not—it’s a complicated plot with a lot of characters and a lot of agendas, much like real life, probably. L’Etoile writes convincingly about his law enforcement characters, and some have managed to maintain a sense of humor. Billie’s a solid female character, but several of the other women are less believable.
The way L’Etoile describes the unforgiving desert environment of northern Mexico and south Arizona, for many people and even for a time for Parker, it’s almost as much an enemy as the gun-toting coyotes smuggling people through the tunnels under the “impenetrable” U.S. border wall.
It’s a memorable story, and if you want to read more about this troubled area, I recommend Don Winslow’s The Cartel and Down by the River, riveting nonfiction by the late investigative reporter Charles Bowden.