The Small Right Thing

Jude’s dad wasn’t the only one named. His two best friends on the force, Bill Malvasio and Phil Strock, faced the same charges: jacking drug dealers, basically. Jude remembered thinking at the time (and on and off in the years since)that thousands if not millions in the greater Chicago area would shrug off such behavior as evidence of a go-getter attitude, not guilt. And the accused seemed to know that only too well.

Blood of Paradise is a hard book to comment on, because there is so much to think about.  David Corbett writes crime novels – not mysteries or thrillers, books about people engaged in crime. It’s a new sub-genre to me. Blood of Paradise might not be the best introduction to this sub-genre because it sets the bar so high.

Full disclosure; I was in Corbett’s novel class at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference a few weeks ago, and you know from a previous post that I liked him as a teacher. I easily recognize that some many people who have a gift for teaching are not necessarily as good as doing; hence that annoying old saying. The reverse is also true. Many talented people are incapable of teaching.  Corbett can do both. There, that’s done. Now I can talk about the book.

Like I said… where to start? Blood of Paradise is a rich, layered tragedy. In his afterword, Corbett says he was inspired by a play by Sophocles, called Philoctetes. In it, Odysseus essentially corrupts the innocent son of a friend in order to achieve an objective. Corbett sets his story in present-day El Salvador, and the book has a lot to say about corruption; the spiritual, the personal, the governmental.

It took me a while to commit to the characters, but Corbett’s powerful writing and vivid descriptions carried me along. The sense of place established in this book is powerful. The house in the gated community where the climactic action scene takes place is so realistic that I started thinking I’d been there. That’s just scary.

This is, however, a story about people; about Jude, a young security specialist assigned to protect an American hydrologist; Eileen, a anthropologist, Jude’s love interest and later, the voice of his conscience; Clara, a local woman; Bill Malvasio, ex-pat American, a former cop who worked with Jude’s father in Chicago; and Phil Strock, Jude’s father’s partner.

Jude is the son of an unloving, punishing mother and a father who is a corrupt cop. This leaves him damaged. Jude, who works for a security firm, is otherwise a smart, brave, resourceful young man. Jude likes to build things and his fantasy is to build schools and water systems for poor people. What he is actually doing is body-guarding Axel, who is in El Salvador to evaluate the impact of a soda bottling plant on the local water table. Jude gets a surprise call from his dad’s cop-buddy Bill Malvasio, asking for a meeting.

Malvasio was the leader of a trio of cops, including Jude’s dad, who shook down lower-echelon drug dealers in Chicago. Both the senior McManus and Phil Strock cut deals and were allowed to resign, disgraced and pensionless, but Malvasio disappeared on the heels of the unsolved murder of an IA cop. More recently, Jude’s father was found dead in unusual circumstances. It could have been accidental, but clearly Jude, at least, suspects suicide.
Jude has mixed feelings about meeting with Malvasio, but he agrees. Malvasio wants to give his condolences for the death of Jude’s father, and he wants to explain what happened, back in Chicago. The scene is awkward. I don’t mean the writing is awkward. The writing is perfect; Corbett captures better than anyone else I’ve read that gut-pinching, twitchy, unpleasant conversation with a person who is partially apologizing to you and partially rationalizing their behavior. Jude starts off strong, asking the hard questions, but he remembers “Uncle Bill” from when he was a kid, and all too soon starts accepting Malvasio’s justifications. His reason is not rational, it’s emotional. He wants Uncle Bill’s approval.

Of course Malvasio is manipulating him. Malvasio works for a quartet of high-placed crooks, and all four have an interest in the bottling plant. Malvasio is  putting in place an elaborate scheme, one that requires a sharp-shooter like Phil Strock, his old partner from Chicago. Strock hates Malvasio, who betrayed him. He has a soft spot for Jude though, and believes he owes Jude’s father a debt.

Soon, without really understanding his own reasons, Jude is on a plane back to el norte to track down Strock.

This story is a tragedy, and it works because Jude, while sympathetic and even at times noble, is not truly an innocent. When he hears things from Strock that call Malvasio’s version of events into question, he could choose to tell Strock the truth and cut Malvasio loose. He could even turn Malvasio in once he gets back to El Salvador, and this would be the prudent thing to do. Instead he mentally colludes with his own corruption, making excuses for Malvasio and   rationalizing away what his intellect and his instincts are telling him.

Corbett alternates points of view, shifting among Jude, Malvasio, Strock and even, once or twice, Eileen. This means the reader has a better appreciation for  how bad it really is. By the time Jude pieces together the plot and decides to confide in his principle, Axel, it is too late to do the right thing. The scary thing is that, at this point, there may not  even be a right thing . Children are at risk now; a boy who witnessed a murder and a little girl who Malvasio abducted. Axel is determined to rescue them both. This is not a Clancyesque thriller. US-ninjas won’t be zip-lining down from army helicopters; Axel won’t be holding an international press conference, showing the photographs, and shaming the villains into shutting down the bottling plant.( There are photographs, in fact, and Axel does have them, but they don’t do him any good.) In the dramatic battle scene at the end, Jude does a good job and manages to mitigate some of the damage, but it’s still too late.

At the end, all that is left is for Jude to confront Malvasio one final time. In contrast to Jude, who, though blinded by his weaknesses, is a good man, Malvasio functions strictly at the level of survival, taking no responsibility for any of his own actions. Because this is a tragic story, Jude’s final act, while emotionally satisfying and completely understandable, is not the act of the good man he was at the beginning of the book.

It is no accident that the final words of the book belong to Clara, a native woman who has been nearly voiceless throughout the book. Malvasio treated her like furniture. She was sent to care for Strock, who spoke no Spanish, and Clara speaks no English. At the end, though, it is Clara, and only Clara, who knows what the right thing is. Evil governments will not topple. Corrupt men, grown fat on greed, will not be brought to justice, but Clara will do the small right thing.

I said, “Get up, please. Lead me to this little girl’s mother. We will go together and make this thing right.” And with the beautiful child bundled up in my arms,  I helped him to his feet ,led him out of that house and we walked beneath the moon and stars together and I told him it would be all right, even as my heart broke.”



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