Review published on January 28, 2016.
Fans of grisly crime with a large dose of literary substance should flock to devour The House of Wolfe, the third in James Carlos Blake’s “border-noir” trilogy centring on the exploits of the Wolfe family clan. Unlike the first novel in the series, however – the sprawling epic Country of the Bad Wolfes, this is an altogether smaller tale, its narrow focus concentrated on a kidnapping gone awry. Yet its ostensibly slim plot-line belies the vast range of themes simmering beneath its surface, testament to both the comfort and control Blake wields over this familiar fictional territory.
There is nothing particularly unique about the novel’s premise – the trope of criminal cartels vying to maintain supremacy in an increasingly ambitious underworld is a well-worn one. Yet whilst acknowledging its roots in the fiction of McCarthy and Leonard, Blake manages to make the story and its voices wholly his own, with both character and detail that spring to life off the page and into the mind of the reader.
Filmic is definitely a word which springs to mind – nor is this quality confined to the more visceral episodes within the book (which includes a wonderfully terrifying coup de grace involving feral dogs), but in the more quiet episodes of contemplation, the nuanced expression between characters, or the non- verbal tics and gestures of shame or resignation. In Mexico City, the pomp and spectacle of a society wedding is about to fall foul of a band of nascent petty criminals and their plot to kidnap ten members of the assembled party.
The intention behind the attack is not merely financial. For the gang’s head man, the fiercely ambitious El Galan, has aspirations to use a percentage of the five million dollar ransom to ingratiate himself into a larger and more prolific underworld cartel and thus fuel his own gang’s advancement through the criminal ranks. The plan is at once audacious and brilliantly planned, El Galan presenting as a sort of “gentleman thief” of the underworld, with his pristine suits and softly spoken voice, who assures the families that he wants nothing more than to collect the ransom and release the captives safely back to their families.
What Galan doesn’t realise, however, is that one of the kidnapped party is the outlier Jessica Juliet Wolfe, beloved ward of Charlie Fortune, one of the established heads of the Wolfe family. If we don’t already know it we soon learn that the Wolfes are a large and expansive clan of outlaws who not only operate numerous legitimate concerns but also the most prolific and illegal gun-running business across the Texas-Mexico border. When surreptitious yet immaculately plotted word gets out to the Wolfes about the kidnapping, a chain of events is set in motion that one suspects can only end in the kind of violent, bloody denouement Blake has become famous for.
Yet aside from a brief and largely unrelated opening vignette which foreshadows the violence to come, Blake makes his readers wait until two thirds into the book before the story really ratchets up the pace wherein it speeds to its terrifying denouement in a dizzying display of hard action scenes. Prior to this readers are asked to take the scenic route through the book’s narrative, admiring the “scenery” of Blake’s characterisation, their motivations, and their relative histories. It is interesting to compare the pace of this novel to Country of the Bad Wolfes which displays a similarly relaxed attitude in the interests of world building but intersperses this with frequent episodes of high drama.
As a much longer novel, however, these shorter intervals become necessary in order to keep the pace of a book which would otherwise become bogged down in seeming exposition. Given the relatively short page count of The House of Wolfe, Blake displays much less “nervousness” about allowing the tension to build slowly, although some hard core thriller readers may feel cheated by this device and ultimately disappointed that it’s only the last third of the novel that truly epitomises their expectations.
As in all of Blake’s work, setting plays a pivotal role in casting a wider light on his themes. Thus, in The House of Wolfe we travel wide of the borders, the author frequently juxtaposing the higher echelons of privileged society – characterised by a love of classical music, exquisite tailoring and fine dining – against the slum shanty towns of Mexico City with its perennial stench of the fiery garbage pits. It’s no coincidence that the houses where the kidnapped parties are taken are set among the worst of these slums, the endurance of which one suspects is as terrifying and alien to those concerned as the situation that find themselves in. The fact that most if not all of El Galan’s men hail from such circumstances themselves adds another layer to the thematic concern of mutability in the novel and the tenuous position any one of us holds on our current position in the world.
Even to a greater degree than in Country of the Bad Wolfes, Blake’s language remains lean and visceral throughout; another homage to the greats of the genre, but also due in part to the more modern-day setting of the novel with its verbal idiosyncracies and contractions. The overall impression this gives is of a mission-driven narrative that only occasionally lapses into detours of contemplation, unhindered by the purple prose which might drag similar subject matter into the realms of melodrama.
Emotional connections are implied rather than ever fully explored, the tightness of familial bonds more likely to be evident in the moments of silence and physical expression than in conversation. The Wolfes are a family so perfectly integrated within themselves that words have become almost superfluous beyond the purely functional. What impresses about Blake’s storytelling is its absolute plausibility. Unlike El Galan, the author seems to have thought through “all exigencies” and manages to inject both inevitability and yet novelty into the various narrative twists and turns that populate the novel. Part of this is derived from his immaculate plotting, part to the charm of his characters who, despite their dubious moral compasses, make us invested in their fates and rooting to see them triumph.
Given the fact of the Wolfe’s business interests this is no mean feat but is achieved through an unflinching and unapologetic adherence to their simple creed of “live and let live unless one of us is threatened”, a philosophical standpoint that seems universally relate-able. The Wolfes, unlike El Galan, refuse to deal in human traffic or drugs, but will readily supply the arms to those who wish to do so, all the while maintaining a staunch belief that “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.” Nonetheless, a point comes later in the book when an indirect comparison is made between both El Galan and the Wolfes when Meliton, El Galan’s mentor and self-made criminal mastermind tells him that the mark of a top man is to “do what needs to be done”, perhaps blurring the lines between our hitherto acceptance of the Wolfes as somehow morally superior to the likes of El Galan and his ilk. Blake’s characterisations are frequently the standout feature of his writing and this novel is no exception.
Despite their myriad number, (of which the reader is kept abreast by chapters headed by name to establish point of view), even minor characters are elevated beyond the role of mere spear carrier, and captured in perfect miniature via card games, conversations, and, in one memorable sequence, through the expert navigation of a microbus through a busy intersection.
Women are equally well represented in this regard, with more time than not spent on their resourcefulness and courage in difficult circumstances than the more obvious erotic associations of other books that characterise this genre. Indeed, two of the larger roles in the novel, with proportionate narrative time, are given over to both Jessica and Rayo, who are not only instrumental in their own emotional and physical survival but in Rayo’s case, facilitating the survival of others.
Elsewhere, masterful portrayals of characters such as Meliton deserve special mention, not just for their unexpected comic leverage but also their ultimate pathos in becoming representative of both a time and an industry characterised by impermanence which, like Meliton’s sexual prowess, can never be relied upon to last forever, despite efforts and appearances to the contrary.
Overall, this is a competent, compulsive muscular read with the narrative chops to stand alone without reference to either of its predecessors. Highly recommended.
The House of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake
A Real Reader review
Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon – the verdicts coming in: 6
SECOND OPINION: Blood Axe by Leigh Russell
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