The Last King of Texas

by Rick Riordan

Published by Bantam Books

320 pages, 2000

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Navarre Say Die

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


If Rick Riordan had endowed The Last King of Texas with a plot as rich as the book's setting and characters, he'd have produced a tour de force of crime fiction. As it is, the first hardcover outing for private eye Tres Navarre (Big Red Tequila, 1998; The Widower's Two-Step, 1999) smolders plenty but never quite catches fire.

Readers who savor atmospheric, regional mysteries will likely forgive the meandering and convoluted plot. With characters such as the rags-to-riches, poetry-quoting gangster, Ralph Arguello, and fierce P.I. and single mother Erainya Manos, Riordan is doing for South Texas what James Lee Burke does for Cajun country and Dennis Lehane for Boston.

As The Last King of Texas begins, Navarre, the son of Bexar County's retired sheriff, has just been offered an unusual job at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), one that requires him to use both his Ph.D. in English literature and his P.I.'s license. He would be taking over an undergraduate Chaucer seminar -- plus investigating the untimely deaths of his two immediate predecessors.

Dr. Theodore Haimer, forced into retirement after making remarks about "the damn coddled Mexicans at UTSA," died shortly afterwards of an apparent heart attack. Haimer's successor, local medievalist Aaron Brandon, was shot dead in his home. Police insist they have no clues regarding Brandon's demise, except for a sheaf of unsigned death threats. Purporting to be from Latino activists, the threats claim that Brandon was as racist as Haimer.

Navarre is meeting with police and college administrators in Brandon's old office when the recently delivered mail on the desk begins ticking. Our hero narrowly escapes going the way of his predecessors by sweeping the package into the trash, where the bomb blows out the wall behind his desk.

"I think I'll take the job," Navarre says coolly, as he gets up off the floor. But the beautiful police detective in charge of the case, Ana DeLeon, seems unimpressed and unwilling to collaborate with him.

Navarre turns to Ozzie Gerson, a sheriff's deputy demoted from the vice squad, for help. The disgruntled Gerson reveals that the police have linked Brandon's murder to an old feud between Brandon's father and a gangster named Zeta Sanchez. Six years earlier, the elder Brandon, a sleazy San Antonio entrepreneur whose legitimate business was re-selling used carnival equipment, had been grooming Sanchez as his lieutenant. However, when Sanchez heard rumors that the elder Brandon had been fooling around with his young wife, he tracked his philandering boss to a nightclub and emptied a .45 into Brandon's chest.

Sanchez vanished after that killing, but according to Gerson, he reappeared shortly before Aaron Brandon's death. The younger Brandon's housekeeper has identified a photo of Sanchez as the man she saw running from the house after her employer's murder.

Navarre doesn't buy any of this. Is it likely, he wonders, that a thug like Sanchez would cover his tracks by writing a series of literate, political death threats? And why would Sanchez go after Aaron Brandon when it's Aaron's unsavory brother, Del, who now runs the lucrative Brandon family businesses -- both shady and legit? Navarre suspects that Sanchez is being conveniently framed by someone else who wanted Aaron Brandon dead. The question is, who?

Navarre, his boss, Manos, and their detective colleague, the courtly widower George Berton, spend the rest of this book trying to unravel the frame-up. The team of private eyes must contend not only with the police detectives (Ana DeLeon, hampered by her resentful partner, a testosterone-powered good ol' boy named Kelsey), but with the surly Del Brandon, a sadistic Goth-styled gangster called Chicharron and Aaron Brandon's secretive widow.

Businessman Ralph Arguello ties together all of the characters, if not the plot, in The Last King of Texas. The wheeling, dealing, dope-smoking owner of a fencing company, Arguello knows about everyone in the tight Latino community, from the movers and shakers to the thugs who deal chiva (heroin). Police reports list him as a person of interest in connection with numerous theft and vice cases, but he has never been convicted of anything. Arguello has a fatherly interest in Navarre, a hatred for Chicharron and a mysterious past connection with DeLeon -- as well as a shaman-like power over everyone he encounters. He is an imposing figure:

Ralph's chili-red face was completely clear of life's little worries -- self-consciousness, doubt, morality. His eyes floated behind thick round glasses and his salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. He wore an extra-large white linen shirt and black jeans. Several gold rings set with onyx stones glittered on his punching hand.

Riordan is as good at setting scenes as he is at peopling them. Here's a description of the Poco Mas Cantina, the neighborhood hangout where Sanchez gunned down the elder Brandon, and where he is rumored to have reappeared before the second murder:

In the daylight, the bar's facade showed its age. Pastel stucco walls were bleached and cracked like a grandmother's makeup; the air-conditioner units whined asthmatically as they dripped condensation onto the gravel. Inside, one customer, a muscle-bound Latino man in a T-shirt and shorts, was sleeping at the center pink Formica table amid wadded-up dollar bills and empty beer bottles. The old bartender with the silver grease-mark hair was placing last night's dirty glasses into a washer rack.

Perhaps the problem with the plot of The Last King of Texas is that no one much misses Aaron Brandon, who was by all accounts a morose man obsessed with the gorier parts of medieval literature. It's hard to care if anyone finds his killer or uncovers the motive. This book is sparked more by violence than suspense, and the action, while there's plenty of it, often seems random. Navarre's friends appear -- and disappear -- at all the convenient moments, and he repeatedly finds himself in brutal confrontations with the gangsters that seem not so much heroic as ill advised.

But once you've hooked up with characters like Arguello, DeLeon and Berton, you're more than willing to stay along for the ride. It's a pleasure to meander through the adventures and musings that make up The Last King of Texas, right up to an ending as sentimental and bittersweet as the final chorus of an old cantina canción. | April 2000


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.