Charlie Hood roams Los Angeles and points south in The Renegades, a typically streamlined T. Jefferson Parker thriller about the faces and interfaces of the law. Hood is a Los Angeles Sheriff's Department soldier investigating the death of his former partner, Terry Laws, a muscle-bound type and apparent good guy also known as Mr. Wonderful. When Terry was shot, the killer didn't shoot Hood — at the same scene. Hood wonders so hard why he was spared that he penetrates the heart of the Mexican drug cartel (think of those underground tunnels as arteries) and, in the process, gets an idea of what keeps people true to themselves.
Hood's nemesis is Coleman Draper, also a man in his late 20s, who grew up in Mexico and California and as a teen lost his family in a suspicious fire. He is an LASD reservist; before Laws hooked up with Hood he joined Draper in some police work.
Think of Parker's work as sunshine noir. It's akin to that of Don Winslow, another specialist in the soft white underbelly of Southern California, and that of Louisiana crime poet James Lee Burke, known for his Dave Robicheaux mysteries.
Simmering beneath that quest are other story lines: Hood maintains an ambivalent relationship with talented semi-outlaw Bradley Jones and his pop-singer girlfriend Erin McKenna (who heads a band nicely called the Cheater Slicks) and develops more straightforward ones with a prosecutor and a meth-freak murder suspect.
The writing is so lean the plot stuffing doesn't bother. Scenes, particularly ones set in Mexico, are vividly rendered, and dialogue can ricochet, as in this exchange between a Draper girlfriend and a cop who has asked her to help nail the guy:
"'You strip my illusions and break my heart, then demand civic responsibility?'
" 'That's right,' said Stekol with a smile. 'Same thing that happens to us cops every day we show up for work.' "
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.