“Dead if I Don’t” Urban Waites (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Book cover for Dead if I Don't by Urban Waites

When the oil well runs dry on his father’s land, Ray Lamar, a former solider, starts doing jobs for Memo to provide an income for his wife and son. Memo’s a drug smuggler and the jobs he gives Ray involve the safe passage of drugs over the Mexican border. When Ray’s wife and son were involved in a car accident killing his wife and disabling his son, he leaves his son with his father and takes off. Ray may not seem to be the most sympathetic of characters, but the landscape made him. He’s caught up in a kill or be killed situation and, as a soldier, was trained to kill. He never really came to terms with his wife’s death and son’s disabilities. But did recognise he couldn’t cope so left his son with someone he felt would give him a better chance.

Ray’s cousin, Tom, was sheriff at the time. Acting on a tip-off from Ray, Tom leads a raid on the house of a local single mother, who is suspected of working for a drugs cartel but no one’s yet found any proof. She’s killed in a shoot out that costs Tom his job. The mother’s daughter is adopted by a local couple. Tom turns to farming, caring for his father and checking up on the adopted daughter and his nephew, Ray’s son.

It’s a masculine, desert landscape. Ray’s father, Tom’s father and Ray are all widowers. Dario and his cartel all single. The main female character is the sheriff, Enda Kelly, and she’s understandably tough but not an honorary man. It’s also a landscape reflected in the prose: sharp, minimalist and honed. It alludes to but remains distinctive from Cormac McCarthy. Urban Waites’s descriptions of New Mexico evoke the scene without any extraneous detail and become as distinctive as James Lee Burke’s pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Ten years after his wife’s death, Ray is asked to do one final job for Memo. It sounds straightforward enough, babysit Memo’s nephew and take a consignment of drugs from two smugglers. But it goes wrong. Memo’s nephew boasted of experience he didn’t have and Ray has to clear up. He also fails to heed a warning. Unknown to his workers, Memo had a policy of divide and conquer, putting drugs runners in competition with each other. One of his workers, Dario, had been empire building with a view to taking a larger share and Memo wants to put him in his place. Only after his father’s death does Ray realise he’s simply a pawn and an expendable one at that.

Meanwhile the local sheriff has a rising bodycount, a lack of resources and a mayor more concerned with unemployed oil workers leaving town than drug smugglers’ deaths. Tom offers to help. However, he becomes conflicted between doing the right thing and family loyalties. He still believes that Ray can be rescued. Ray doesn’t share that view, but does set in motion a chain of events that see a justice, of sorts, done. Urban Waites draws complex, credible characters shaped by their geographical and personal landscape, who hang around after the book’s finished. I look forward to the next Urban Waites novel.



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