Review of the Week: The Ways of Wolfe: A Border Noir By James Carlos Blake
Fans of Rex Stout should be forewarned: this book is not about the legendary orchid-loving detective who weighed one-seventh of a ton. Instead, this book is part of a family saga (the earlier books are as, of this writing, unread by me, and prior knowledge of the first novels in the series is not necessary for reading The Ways of Wolfe). As far as I can tell, there are no spoilers for previous books, nor is any familiarity with earlier characters or events necessary. All the reader needs to know is that the Wolfes are an influential family with business interests on both sides of the Mexican/United States border, and on both sides of the law, as well.
The central character of this book is Axel Prince Wolfe, the former golden boy of his family who was intended to have a lucrative legal career before poor choices in friends and really terrible decisions wound up costing him his future and his family. Decades pass, and the now middle-aged Axel is eventually given the opportunity to cut his prison time short with a daring jailbreak. But even if Axel survives the escape, his twin passions—re-entering the crime syndicate and tracking down the daughter who has grown up without him—may prove his downfall.
Atmospherically, the book is rich and intense. The hot southwestern border is as distinctive and central to the book as snowy Minnesota was for Fargo. The spare but evocative prose creates a stark and foreboding atmosphere for the prison setting as well.
Character-wise, the book is filled with hardened types who have no qualms about their crimes and who are unaware of just how deeply they romanticize the criminal lives they lead. Axel comes across as a man who always had a twist in his psyche that led him to embrace a life a crime, and though most of the minor characters are interesting, none are particularly likable or sympathetic—most are unpleasant sorts. This isn’t really a flaw in the book. It’s Blake’s world, filled with hard men and mute consciences. Fans of dark noir about the seedier aspects of humanity will find a lot to appreciate in Blake’s book, but his characters are far more enjoyable on the printed page than it would be to meet them in real life.
The Ways of Wolfe is a book where bad things happen to bad people. Characters make selfish decisions. Even when someone makes an admirable effort to overcome one’s baser instincts, such as when Axel muses on the futility of revenge and believes he’s forgiven someone who’s betrayed him, it doesn’t take much prompting and opportunity to make him think, “You know, maybe risking everything for revenge isn’t such a bad idea after all!” Retribution comes swift and sudden for many sinning characters, though others escape justice—at least in the confines of this book. Deep down, The Ways of Wolfe is a morality tale about people with no solid sense of morality.