A young ex-soldier’s quest in Peru is stymied by a drug lord in this ambitious first novel from British author Shukman (stories: Mortimer of the Maghreb, 2006, etc.), now a resident of New Mexico.
When 19-year-old Jackson Small enlisted in the British army he was sent to Belize, where the somewhat older Connolly became his mentor, best friend and occasional lover. Connolly and Jackson searched for ruins in Guatemala, which Jackson sketched. In Peru the older man had glimpsed the lost city of La Joya, once home to the fair-skinned, pre-Inca Chachapoyans. Their friendship ended in a firefight with rebels; Connolly died, maybe from Jackson’s friendly fire. The young soldier had a breakdown and was discharged. Two years later he goes to Peru himself, to atone for Connolly’s death and find La Joya. Camping in the northern desert, he’s ripped off by an old Indian traveling with a small boy, Ignacio, who’s been kidnapped. Ignacio escapes and attaches himself to Jackson. The unlikely pair reach a coastal city where Jackson meets Sarah, a blonde American student, and contacts a British consular official, who pays him to do some undercover work in the mountains. There are now three elements to the story: Jackson’s self-discovery, his quest for the ruins and his secret mission, which will take him into territory controlled by drug kingpin Carreras. The self-discovery works fine; in Sarah’s arms, Jackson puzzles out his sexuality. There is excitement too as Jackson stumbles on the ruins and executes his mission, working with a Dutch drug runner who plays both sides. But Shukman has not integrated these different strands; he lets Jackson off the hook when he causes the death of his mountain guide. His flight from the bad guys through the cloud forest is overlong and monotonous, and his subsequent face-to-face with Carreras and the climax in Lima are not believable.
Shukman takes narrative risks, but has yet to find his voice.