Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on July 7, 2021
BLACK WATER [2002] By T. Jefferson Parker
My Review Four Stars****

This was the author’s third and final installment to feature Orange County Detective Merci Rayborn, first introduced in the unforgettable serial killer thriller THE BLUE HOUR [1999]. In the opening pages of the narrative, we see the events of the night’s home invasion through the eyes of Deputy Archie Wildcraft and the reader is privy to the nature and trajectory of the tragic events as they unfold.

The reader quickly learns that Archie survived the gunshot wound, but has a fragmented bullet lodged in his brain and that he is in critical condition in ICU. His beautiful wife Gwen, a few hours following her 26th Birthday, with presents stacked in the floor of their home still unwrapped, had succumbed to fatal gunshots to her head and heart, both shots mortal wounds. The plot is driven by Orange County Detective Merci Rayborn as she and her partner Paul Zamora delve into what appears to be a sheriff's murder of his beautiful wife and his attempted suicide.

The forensic evidence is damning and points in only one direction, that of sheriff’s deputy Archie Wildcraft. The news media is pressuring the authorities for answers and the police department and District Attorney’s Office find themselves at odds with one another. In a bizarre twist, Homicide Detective Merci Rayborn and her partner Paul Zamora adamantly demand further investigation into the shootings while the DA is clamoring for Archie’s arrest and indictment for murder. The political pressure is mounting to arrest Archie in the face of the overwhelming forensic evidence against him, but meanwhile the brain damaged Archie escapes from the hospital with Merci and Paul using all of their resources to solve the puzzle of who framed the young deputy and why.

Parker is well known for his outstanding police procedurals but this story moves along slowly which may be problematic for some readers. The plot is certainly dramatic enough with a fascinating look into the nature of brain injuries to include their effects on short- and long-term memory, the power of reasoning, the process of feeling emotions, and the act of perceiving the world around us. The murder investigation leads Merci and Paul to the biotech industry and also to the far-reaching and deadly arm of the Russian Mafia. Personally, I found the information and details of the upstart biotech company in search of a cure for cancer using viper venom absolutely fascinating. The Russian mobsters were merciless and larger than life, but the complex characters of the book out shadowed the villains.

In fact, the crimes that were committed to include white collar fraud all the way to felony murder seemed to be a platform from which sprang a complex, heart rending multilayered plot line about the human condition. I was more vested in the emotional trials and the feelings of the richly developed characters who populated the book. The interplay among Merci, her 27-month-old toddler Tim Jr., and her weathered ex-cop father were poignant and felt very real with emotional depth. The heartbreak of loss, the isolating effects of a major illness or devastating physical injury were underscored by it seemed every major character in the novel.

I believe that this is a big problem for those readers who did not begin with THE BLUE HOUR and then follow that inaugural novel introducing Merci Rayburn with the truly outstanding sequel RED LIGHT. This third and final installment is a statement about how the characters we have met in the prior books are handling the losses they suffered. A reader who is reading BLACK WATER in a vacuum is likely not to appreciate the novel to the same extent. The author just moves the characters and their emotions around like a chess master as the narrative unfolds, delivers the answers to the book’s many puzzles, and winds down. The reader even gets to see where one of the pivotal players in RED LIGHT [2000] is at the end of his journey in dealing with his own loss. The character of Merci Rayburn is light years from the person she was in THE BLUE HOUR, and we see her in this final story line as beginning to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her own personal hell in losing not only her lover and mentor Hess, but the support and respect of her fellow policeman. It was in THE BLUE HOUR and particularly RED LIGHT [2000] that followed her proverbial fall from grace in the police department and her transformation into a pariah among her peers.

This is a fine example of a police procedural from Parker, but I must confess that but for reading his entire trilogy featuring the Merci Rayburn character I may not have liked it so much. It is at its very heart another analysis by the author about the nature of loss and how it defines us. The title of the book (“BLACK WATER”) refers to a comparison that the major character of Archie Wildcraft makes when examining his memories of Gwen, the wife he adored, after the brain injury:

“…look at her pictures and I see her things. And I smell her. And it feels like a light is about to go on. Like I’m about to bring something up out of black water.”
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