“The border is its own country. It has its own rules.” Clark Lohr, Devil’s Kitchen
I have a soft spot for the The Naked City, the old police procedural filmed in New York in 1948. I have a soft spot for James Ellroy and James Cain and Mickey Spillane and Cormac McCarthy’s border novels. I have a soft spot for any book that looks at crime and violence in an unsentimental way and lets us follow the machinations of cops or criminals.
I have a soft spot for Clark Lohr’s Devil’s Kitchen.
Devil’s Kitchen follows Manny Aguilar, a Tucson detective as he tries to solve a murder while battling the evil of the streets and the evil created by the bureaucracy of the Tucson police station. This second evil is often more insidious because no one is really to blame for it. There are rules that cannot be circumvented. They were created for a good reason, but they create a problem for Manny, who must deal with them as he tries to do good in this world.
One of the things that I loved about Lohr’s novel is his use of place. Some of the greatest crime writers have known that setting can and should be used as both friend and enemy to the hero. In The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco’s fog is as dangerous as anyone, and the crime that exists on its streets is the natural outgrowth of the city. McTeague ends in the middle of Death Valley, the title character handcuffed to a corpse and doomed by the desert. The list goes on and on, and each of these stories draws us in by taking us to some unique place.
So it is with Lohr’s world. Tucson is a big city with its dangers, and it would have been easy enough to have written purely about urban crime, but Lohr recognizes that Tucson is not Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. It is its own world, and the crime that exists there has to do with its proximity to the border and the desert. Lohr’s Tucson is in many ways a wild place where armed gangsters pop out of nowhere blasting away. The bad guys are like villains from cowboy novels rather than mob men or street gangs from so many novels.
Beware. Devil’s Kitchen is often violent, but I enjoyed that. If you like film noir, Lawrence Block, or Chester Himes, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it too. This novel is recommended.