rating: 4 of 5 stars
[Full disclosure: Neil Smith published my first short story. He also owes me a beer. Bet he didn’t know that about the beer, did he?]
Deputy Billy LaFitte is trying to start over in rural Minnesota. A former Gulf Coast cop, he was brought down by graft and divorce in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His ex-brother-in-law Graham, the sheriff of Yellow Medicine County, throws him a lifeline, bringing him north.
Not that Billy’s found God or learned his lessons. He still shakes down meth dealers for protection and occasionally helps himself to a female suspect if she’s willing. But Billy has his friends, too, including psychobilly bass player Drew.
When Drew, a friend with benefits, asks Billy to get his boyfriend out of a jam, he agrees, figuring a night with Drew would be a fair enough exchange. Unfortunately, when Billy chases Ian into hiding to keep him from the bad guys, the bad guys, two Malaysian drug distributors, show themselves, making Billy an offer he has to refuse.
Billy says no. The bodies pile up, and Malaysians make sure the finger is pointed at Billy. If Billy would just come clean, it’d all be over. But Billy’s instinct is to cover his ass while trying to clean up the mess. By the time it’s all over, Billy finds himself face-to-face with Muslim terrorists (although not very bright ones) and an ambitious rogue federal agent named Rome, for whom Billy’s head on a platter is the ticket to a cushy office in Washington.
Smith works best with the morally questionable protagonist, of which Billy LaFitte is the latest. He doesn’t shy away from painting him as a bad guy in the beginning, but then just as easily gives us a reason to care. Drew, for instance, is more than an easy night in the sack for Billy. He’s in love with her, even if that love isn’t returned. Moreover, as the death toll rises, Billy starts seeing himself as Drew’s protector.
One interesting aspect of the story the role dogma plays. The terrorists are dogmatic to the point where they will justify anything, even sins of the flesh (One terrorist is caught with a cute blonde girlfriend in Detroit). However, their devotion to the cause has cracks. One character doesn’t like his leadership role challenged. Several are shown to be so zealous that they don’t think things through.
LaFitte’s former in-laws, too, are dogmatic. Flashbacks depict Billy’s father-in-law spouting scripture to destroy his marriage. And yet…
As with the homicide detective from Smith’s novella with Victor Gischler, TO THE DEVIL, MY REGARDS, we have a man for whom faith and dogma are merely tools to get through life. Graham, Billy’s former brother-in-law and his boss, thinks Billy is redeemable, and at some point, Billy starts to believe him. However, over a dozen people are dead by the time he realizes this.
But if there’s one person in all this who is truly evil, it’s Agent Rome. Rome is a Homeland Security agent who doesn’t care if Billy is innocent or not. He has himself a home-grown terrorist, and if he can paint Billy as a collaborator and a traitor, he can write his own ticket.
In the beginning, Rome seems to be an ally, working undercover at a Sioux casino. When he reveals himself, he claims to want to get Billy out of a jam, but soon, all he cares about is running Billy into either witness protection or federal prison. And he’s not above anything to do it, including, possibly, murder.
Of all of Smith’s novels, YELLOW MEDICINE is the most complex. Like the previous two, he gives us a sharp sense of place, this time cold, damp norther Minnesota. LaFitte is probably his most complex character to date. All in all, probably Smith’s best novel yet.
Now you know how to spend your summer vacation. Get crackin’. It’s almost August.
*Warning: May cause irrational pre-natal fear of lemurs in newborns. Consult your physician or Steve Wilkos before reading to unborn fetuses prior to third trimester. Use only as directed. Terms and conditions may apply. See dealer for details. Offer void in Albania, Dubai, and the parts of Pakistan both Obama and McCain want to bomb.