ILLEGAL is not a Solomon vs. Lord novel. Paul Levine, creator of the unique attorney duo who fought for justice with almost as much passion as they fought each other (and often hilariously so), has created a new mythos, one closer to his Jake Lassiter series than to Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. His new protagonist is attorney Jimmy "Royal" Payne. While his previous creations made South Florida their home base, Payne is headquartered across the country from them in Los Angeles. The change of locale is accompanied by a darker tone, which is not to say that ILLEGAL finds Levine's well of humor to be dry. Payne uses humor more as a weapon than as a conversational instrument, unlike the characters who populate the author's earlier works. And with good reason.
We come to find out that Payne has experienced a devastating personal tragedy, one that has cost him his family and apparently his judgment. As the book begins, Payne is recruited --- "coerced" may be a better word --- into entrapping a judge in a bribery scheme. He is successful, but, as with many things with which Payne is involved, it backfires badly on him, more so when he is accused of diverting some of the bribery money for himself. The accusation is career-threatening, all the more so because it's true. On the run from the police, Payne crosses paths with a 12-year-old Mexican runaway who is in even more trouble than he is.
Tino Perez and his mother, Marisol, have been forced to flee their native Mexico and use a notorious coyote to negotiate the illegal crossing into the United States. Mother and son become separated along the way, with the result being that Tino suddenly finds himself penniless on the streets of Los Angeles without papers or guidance. His only hope is a business card that his mother slipped him shortly before they lost touch, bearing the address and phone number of a "powerful" attorney: J. Atticus Payne, who had assisted a group of migrant workers in attaining legal status in the U.S. But when Tino ultimately arrives at Payne's place of business, he is disappointed to find a disheveled office and an even more down-at-the-heels Payne. Himself on the run from the police, Payne quickly though inadvertently places Tino in even more jeopardy than he was in previously. Still, Tino notices one quality that his mother had valued above all others: Payne is a man who keeps his promises, and she would describe him as a real valiente.
For reasons of his own, Payne agrees to accompany Tino on a clandestine trip back to Mexico, hoping to retrace Tino's path so they can locate the coyote that disappeared with Marisol and ascertain her whereabouts so that mother and son can be united. Such a task is not easy. Payne and Tino doggedly pursue Marisol's path along a desolate landscape littered with false starts, bad luck and danger at every turn. Marisol, for her part, is being held as a de facto prisoner on a farm that provides the sole income for a small California town and where the word of Sim Rutledge, the owner, is law. Payne and Tino speed toward an uncertain rescue and a deadly, tragic climax where much, but by no means all, is resolved, while more than one innocent life hangs in the balance.
Those familiar with Levine's past work will find that his ever-present penchant for accuracy in the settings of his stories has reached new heights. The varied backdrops of ILLEGAL are more exotic than those featured in his previous novels. For example, Levine could have phoned in a standard border town description in which Payne could have run wild; instead, he takes him down dangerous side streets away from the casual tourists to a bowling alley where bowling is a mere side business. As one reads the book and follows in the footsteps of Marisol, Payne and Tino, the feeling is inescapable that Levine's research wore out more shoe leather than word processing keys. This is true in particular of the slaughterhouse scenes, which will have you at least considering a change in dietary habits. Most significant, however, is his presentation of the problem of illegal immigration. While the illegal immigrants themselves are portrayed in a sympathetic light, Levine does an excellent job of highlighting the issues surrounding them.
The combination of real-world situations, nail-biting suspense and a new character in the Levine mythos make ILLEGAL a title for your must-read list.