Drugs and Prophecy

Tucsonan Darrell James brings back Del Shannon for a Sonoran adventure

It's not just the international borderline that gets crossed in the new Del Shannon crime thriller, Crossing Sonora; you've also got marriage-vow lines, legal lines and loyalty lines. And then there's the normal/paranormal line. Or not.

When last we saw Del Shannon, she'd been blasting away at a shooting range to exorcise the demons from the loss of her mother. This time, when we first see her, she's blasting away at that shooting range to exorcise the demons from the death of a former lover. That the lover had, in fact, been married to someone else (and lied about it) only aggravates the loss.

Tucson writer Darrell James has created a character who points a pistol at inanimate objects when life smacks her down. In his 2011 debut novel, Nazareth Child, James took Tucson private investigator Shannon out of the desert to infiltrate a religious cult in Kentucky. In Sonora Crossing, he takes advantage of the lucrative local drug-smuggling corridors to let her work in her own backyard.

Once Shannon has assuaged her grief by firing off 30 expert rounds—and then taking in a quickie with a rodeo cowboy—she considers accepting a new assignment: A 6-year-old Arizona girl has been kidnapped by her drug-lord uncle and taken into Mexico. The uncle—Santos de la Cal, "The Assassin of Sonora"—believes the child has prophetic powers, and he's reputed to consult her when he plans drug deliveries. Shannon's job would be to locate and retrieve her. Shannon hesitates to accept it until she finds, in the child's bedroom, a wall of newspaper clippings about herself—Del Shannon, crack locator of missing persons. That the girl had also clipped a photo of Shannon's ex-, a cop ostensibly murdered by a cuckolded husband, seals the deal, and she's off to Mexico.

The Sonora depicted in this novel isn't the beach-and-margaritas one the state tourist bureau would paint. The violence of competing drug cartels is featured, along with recent U.S. State Department travel warnings. Add to that the description of Santos' dungeon/prison/penthouse digs in a rusty copper-mining area, the stranglehold his gang has on the population of the region, and the Wild West quality of Sonora's desert and mountain areas, and you could well come away with the impression that northern Mexico is a pretty darn dangerous place.

At play in the narrative—in addition to the search for the kidnapped girl, Aurea—are Shannon's unsettled personal life; La Banda, an armed group of Mexican civilians challenging Santos' violent reign (led by the handsome Francisco Estrada); and the question of the child. Aurea has a compelling, but mute, presence. She communicates with her eyes and selective pointing. Her uncle sees it as prophetic, but any true capacity for "prophecy" is viewed skeptically by some, and anxiously by others.

James sets up a classic good-guy/bad-guy conflict between Shannon and Santos, but some of the other characters range in the murky space between. The first character we see killed, for example, is attempting to extricate himself from Santos' corrupt circle. It's an impulse we'll see again: Easy money and power tempt the poor and powerless, and then they're stuck on the wrong side.

In a pivotal subplot, the regional captain of the federales, Nesto Para, who is firmly on Santos' payroll, finds himself conflicted. He feels some sympathy for La Banda, and Santos is suspicious of him. Santos tests Para's loyalty, and Para sweats out a session in front of Aurea's piercing gaze. When Estrada is called upon to help Shannon and needs police support, Para faces a decision that puts his life on the line.

James has lots of narrative balls in the air, but he keeps the action relatively unburdened by thematic freight or nuanced character development. Shannon does her job, and she's bolstered by a little cross-border romance with Estrada. Most of the plot is original and entertaining, with one rather predictable element overshadowed by another terrific surprise—but the end might have one twist too many.

Del Shannon is a character you'd like to continue to follow. She's smart, sexy, tough and adventurous—a female P.I. who doesn't depend on men. And James has her engaged in situations with some interesting psychological implications.

As for the little girl's powers in Sonora Crossing: James drops an academic hint that some new-agers believe there are highly "evolved" children, known as "Indigo children" for the color of the aura they emit. As for the question of whether this child crosses over into that category, James leaves the answer satisfyingly ambiguous.

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