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SHELL GAMES by Kirk Russell

SHELL GAMES

By Kirk Russell

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8118-4186-3
Publisher: Chronicle

A special squad of undercover endangered-species investigators goes after poachers and ends up taking on a nightmarish international killer and the FBI.

Lt. John Marquez, head of the California Fish & Game Department’s Special Operations Unit, stumbles upon a grisly torture-murder while investigating a multimillion-dollar abalone poaching operation. Something stinks, and it’s not bad shellfish. Ex-DEA agent Marquez can’t help but notice the similarities between this torture killing and the darkest moment from his fed dope-sleuth period in Mexico. His nemesis, the man who took out his entire DEA crew and said he’d get him later, is back. The local homicide investigator and FBI don’t want Marquez poking into the case. Meanwhile, he has much of the detective genre’s DNA: he’s moody, struggles with his demons by night, his ex-DEA undercover bio subs for the usual Vietnam vet résumé, and though he’s not divorced, his marriage is on the rocks thanks to the old struggle between the job and the family. Throw in a few more flashbacks and he’d fit right in at James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux Dock & Bait Shop in Louisiana. But to first-novelist Russell’s credit, Marquez doesn’t chase Scotch with jazz or slam his badge and gun on the boss’s desk. This is not a cliché fest. The story is loaded with atmosphere, as the SOU team races through clogged California traffic up and down the moody coast from Fort Bragg to San Francisco. It’s also made unself-consciously relevant with timely references, such as contrasting the mortally wounded California state budget and the whatever-it-takes blank check given federal agencies in the name of post-9/11 national security. The SOU crew includes a variety of believable characters, not a one from central casting. The bad guys are as colorful as Elmore Leonard’s cast of wise guys, but with ex-hippie and surfer dudes subbing for Leonard’s thugs and made men.

Russell could, and should, take Marquez and this crew out again.