Some Rise By Sin by Philip Caputo (Crime/Suspense Novel, 2017).
This engrossing, if grim contemporary novel is set in and around an isolated desert village in the foothills of Mexico’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Like so much of the country, San Patricio is being torn apart by a brutal drug war of a savagery on a scale that dwarfs even the considerable carnage faced by US towns and cities. The people there are caught between a brutal cult-like Cartel led by a guy who imagines himself the revolutionary Savoir of Mexico and ruthless government forces led by fanatical Captain of Paratroopers Valencia and a Federal Police officer of utterly compromised loyalties known as The Professor.
Although the book doesn’t by any means ignore the locals’ struggles, the bulk of the novel actually focuses on two American expatriates.
One, Tim Riordan, is a missionary priest trying to serve his adopted community (and not incidentally maintain his own faltering faith) while being overwhelmed by the pervasive corruption, grinding poverty and unspeakable violence. Events and the moral conflicts they foster have him confronting a dilemma: Must he betray his sacred vows (most particularly his pledge to protect the absolute secrecy promised in the Rite of Confession) in order to bring down a cult-like drug ring and thereby protect the people?
The other, Doctor Lisette Moreno must keep her rocky lesbian affair with often unstable artist Pamela Childress under wraps to be accepted by her tradition-minded patients. Meanwhile, she also runs great risks making “house calls” on the even poorer and more insular Native hamlets out in the mountains. And this region is, of course, where the death-worshipping Cartel holds sway.
Quite unexpectedly, I found The Professor the single most interesting figure in the entire book. There is (appropriately) very, very little ‘fun’ to be found in this volume. Strong drama, yes; ‘fun,’ no. What little there is I find in this suavely ruthless, yet by his own standards thoughtful and wry, attitude-rich man. And in his way he’s also possibly the most honest person in sight here.
Based as it is on the impossible yet all-too-real realities forced upon everyone here, a truly happy ending would be intellectually and indeed emotionally dishonest. Caputo, the prize-winning journalist (his A Rumor of War is rightly acclaimed as one of the finest books on the Vietnam War) and more recently a best-selling novelist (The Longest Road) is not about to fall into that trap.
The Cartel is finally smashed, at great cost (and will surely be replaced by other drug runners), but the obsessed Valencia will not merely accept the hard-won if necessarily incomplete victory. Accordingly, one of the central characters is faced with a final impossible choice. While presented as a starkly inevitable act of Faith, I have a problem with that character’s spur-of-the-moment rationalization of the decision made. No, I won’t go into any detail here–except to say that, this final act of self-sacrifice doesn’t really help the others that are still caught up in the vengeful Captain’s madness.
So this one has a tragic, largely hopeless ending. I wish I could say it wasn’t appropriate, but I can’t. My final take: Grim but worthwhile, uncompromising and dramatic.