Pros: Amazing details of the world of illegal-smuggling; fast-paced action
Cons: Depressing start; too-clean ending
Rating: 4 out of 5
Allow me to make a digression for a moment; I promise it’ll have a point. I like “dark” entertainment material (movies, TV, books), but I don’t like depressing entertainment. First, let me explain why I see a difference between the two, and then I’ll explain why it’s important.
Dark material can be sad, horrifying, or scary. However, it usually has an element of something else to it as well. The sad ending is also beautiful in some way, or contains an element of hope buried within it. The horrifying events are part of a greater thing: an exploration of both the good and the bad within humanity (see also the recent Battlestar Galactica series), or a means to an interesting ending. Scariness is used to make thrillers thrilling, to get our hearts racing. I absolutely love a good dark movie, TV show, or book.
When that material steps over the line into depressing, however, is when it feels pointlessly dark and hopeless. Sad events and outcomes with no hope or beauty to them and no relief from the hopelessness. Horrifying events to no purpose. Fear with no letup and no point. This is why so many otherwise “dark” shows incorporate occasional humorous plots, storylines, or characters: as an emotional foil to keep fear, sadness, and horror from dropping down into depression.
Whenever I’ve seen a show get described by its fans as “becoming too dark,” that’s because it stepped over the line from dark to depressing. Take the season of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer in which Buffy’s problems went from monsters to simply holding down a job and paying the bills. Those are the problems all of us tune into entertainment for an escape from, so they were depressing rather than dark. When networks worry about a show being too dark, however, they often confuse dark and depressing, and don’t realize that plenty of fans are ready and willing to embrace dark as long as it doesn’t become too depressing.
Here’s where I get down to why this is relevant to Paul Levine’s Illegal. For about the first half of the book, I found it depressing rather than dark. And frankly, in a day and age when just reading the news is an exercise in depression, I don’t want to be depressed by my escapism. It took me about a week to read the first half of the book, and a day to read the second half when I finally stopped finding it depressing.
Trial lawyer Jimmy Payne is in a very bad spot. A cop forced him to help with a sting on a corrupt judge, and the whole thing went wrong. Now Jimmy’s a wanted man, and it seems like just the right time to do something he’s wanted to do ever since his son was killed by a drunk driver: hunt the bastard down who did it and kill him. Before he can set off on his mission, however, he comes across twelve-year-old Tino Perez, who was separated from his mother, Marisol, while illegally crossing the border from Mexico.
Payne’s ex-wife Sharon, a police detective, gives him an ultimatum. He can help Tino find Marisol, or she’ll arrest him.
Payne and Tino go to Mexico, where they re-trace Marisol’s steps into the country and track her to one of the most ruthless and notorious human traffickers around: wealthy grower Simeon Rutledge. And for some reason, Simeon is desperate to keep Marisol from being found…
Some of the characters start off feeling a bit flat, particularly the expectably spunky and tough-talking Tino, but thankfully they grow into their roles, around much the same time that I started finding the book more dark than depressing. I never really could figure out why on earth Sharon was with her current fiancee, however; Levine never succeeds in making him seem charming enough to counterbalance his total jackassery.
The details of the human trafficking in illegals are fascinating, and definitely bring the book alive. We get to see plenty of sides to the issue under many different circumstances. The author never tries to reduce the issue to some platitude or provide a magical solution. Instead, he allows it to simply act as an incredible backdrop for his story.
Make no mistake—whether you agree that this book is depressing or not, it’s definitely dark. There are themes and often scenes of murder, abuse, sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, attempted pedophilia, and more. Illegal isn’t for everyone.
My only other reservation is that some of the details at the end wrap up entirely too neatly. I don’t want to give the events away; I’ll merely say that there are things that hang over Jimmy’s head for most of the novel as dire threats that are swept under the rug with barely an explanation when the time comes to wrap things up, and it broke the ability to suspend disbelief for me.
This is definitely a fascinating thriller, and if you’re looking for a peek into the dark world of illegal immigrants and human trafficking then definitely give it a shot. But it does have a few flaws.