A novel we call a “thriller” can thrill on many levels: plot and action, character charisma, veracity of detail such as the technological, compelling power of theme, and even (yes, occasionally) the philosophical ideas at stake. Trails of Injustice, the second in the Hank Rangar series, succeeds at every one of those levels; for this reader, at least, it thrills “the whole man.”
Part, but only part, of that achievement comes from inherent power of the contemporary events that are the novel’s context and launching pad. In 2009, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) cast about for a way to strike at the power of the giant Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel—especially its pipeline of guns, including high-powered rifles, from the United States. The bureau decided to allow the guns to be fed into the pipelines, not stopping them when purchased by American “straw buyers,” but letting them enter the pipeline where agents could follow them into the heart of the cartel.
“Operation Fast and Furious” was billed as a “bold new effort.” Now, it more often is dubbed the agency’s biggest debacle in decades. In the end, some 2,000 weapons ended up in the hands of Mexican criminals; crimes and not a few massacres were committed with the weapons. Long before this became known, though, ATF agents “on the ground” were in rebellion at the law breaking, cover ups (Mexico was not informed), and at Mexican—and then American ATF—agents killed with the guns that had been permitted to “go walking.”
A novel is never its setting, of course, and Trails of Injustice is not a “historical novel,” but its setting brings into play not only agents forced to “cooperate” with criminals, but deep deception and manipulation from Washington, a law enforcement attitude of ends justify means, the stunning cynicism of the anti-gun ATF leadership blaming gun dealers for the debacle, and the hot current topic of Second Amendment rights.
The novel’s prologue hurls us into the crucible of these forces when the cartel rolls into a bitterly poor Mexican town where the brave padre has been dissuading unemployed young men from turning in desperation to the cartel. The explosion of action, as always in such cases, seems too brief for its results: the corpses in the blood-spattered dust, a local missionary gunned down, and the padre, who had hidden one of the boys under his robe, soaked in his own blood. It is a touching, then appalling, and then heartbreaking scene that sets the pitch of the novel’s action and moral force.
Hank Rangar, laying low in Mexico after his first encounter (in Pendulum of Justice) with a Washington bureaucracy gone rogue, is drawn into the dangerously disintegrating ATF affair. Laura Ignacio, a young ATF agent in Mexico, learns that her partner, Danny, has been gunned down–supposedly by the cartel, but in a way that makes her hesitate to hand over Danny’s computer as the ATF is demanding. Instead, when she encounters a handsome hunk on the beach–none other than Hank Rangar, who is conducting a sophisticated technological measurement at low tide—she enlists skills to crack into Danny’s computer.
Funny things happen on the beach just before cocktail hour. Laura unknowingly has recruited a partner who is one of the computer/technological wizards of contemporary literature, but also a moral crusader who already has done mortal combat with Washington at its worst. Cocktails and dinner come (the story’s metabolism is fed by great Mexican cuisine, lovingly described), and the expected discovery of the luscious Laura’s passion, but it is the beginning of so much more.
The battle that Hank, Laura, and then other allies must fight in Trails of Injustice is guided, again and again, by Hank’s command of a bristling armamentarium of computer tools and skills. I can think of no novel that has done this with greater authenticity, intrigue, and panache since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hank’s is the power of the mind, the scientific, reasoning mind, against the sheer force commanded by the now-wholly-alarmed and ruthless acting director of the ATF, Kacey Miller, a pretty, power-lusting lesbian who believes that nothing, certainly not the U.S. Constitution, must stand in the way of gun control.
The action soon immigrates into the United States, focusing around Arizona, ground zero of the real Operation Fast and Furious, and in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the ATF. The stakes increase and the desperation of the Washington forces becomes murderous when ATF tries to pin blame for the “gun walking” south of the border on a firearms manufacturer who is a friend of Rangar’s. His daughter, Abigail, becomes another ally in the battle, and a love interest of Rangar’s, driven by anger at treatment of her father but also infuriated to discover how much fun federal agents who feel above the law can have “searching” a sexy black woman pinned to the ground.
About midway through this novel, in classic thriller fashion, the action begins to accelerate because Rangar, Laura, and Abigail all are landing blows on ATF, blows where it hurts most: in anonymous releases to the media exposing the nature of the gun-walking scheme. Day by day, then hour by hour, the strikes and counter strikes are delivered by Rangar—through computes hacks, cyber-attacks, exposures, and deceptions—and ATF—by pulling out all stops on violence.
In the end, Hank and Laura must die or Kacey Miller must die. On the run across Arizona, where even hiding in the desert is not proof against ATF drones and other intel, Rangar is laying plans for his one and only fatal blow against Kacey Miller—there will be no second chance—even as he evades ATF agents, their cartel buddies, and local cops. The action never slows as the trajectories of the two adversaries hurtle toward collision.
There is no plot like that of the fearless individual in a righteous cause employing every ounce of brain power and scrap energy to fight the limitless resources of a government that has abandoned law to defend power at any price. In that sense, Trails of Injustice, like Pendulum of Justice, is a classic. As long as men anywhere will stake everything, including life itself, to defend their freedom, this will remain one of the grand themes.
In Trails of Injustice, the DK Halling author team has given that theme glorious new life in a way that a thrilling, breathless plot alone cannot. What lifts this novel above even the finest pure-action thriller are the ideas, the principles that not only drive the action but lend it a moral uplift that stirs the heart like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
For Trails of Injustice is a battle fought in the way that only free men and women can fight it: with a conviction that drives heroic choices, terrible risks, and even the occasional sense of gay abandon that comes from knowing we can do no less, that this is best within us.
Buy Trails of Injustice, try not to finish it too quickly, give a thought to what it means for all of us, then tell a friend.