It doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic yet, but there is a tendency for certain American crime writers to experiment with novels with storylines in which the crime theme is largely underplayed, and what is left is an exploration of life in general, or more correctly America in general. I don’t know of as title for such books, though possibly “The State of the Nation” might suffice. Or given the similarity with the naturalist novels of Emile Zola, maybe they could be called nouveau naturalist.
I don’t think this trend started with The Wire, but it is probably no accident that the three contributing writers for that excellent series have all penned books which fit into this tendency, Lehane and Pelecanos have variously dipped their toes, and Richard Price has almost completely submerged himself in it. Now it is Jefferson Parker’s turn.
Full Measure is very much a tale of our times. Ex- marine, Patrick Norris returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan having survived everything the Taliban could throw at him but with a degree of unease at the prospect of fitting back into his previous environment. Patrick comes from a long tradition of avocado farmers in South California. However, he has no great wish to continue in that tradition, preferring to embark on his original ambition: buy himself a boat and cater for tourists wishing to fish the seas off the coast. He also bears the scars of what he has seen in Afghanistan, the death of many of his friends in a war for which he now sees no reason. For him the major objective of the war was survival. Given that his unit suffered the largest casualties of any in the American forces stationed there - for many even that objective proved unattainable.
Back in California, he is welcomed as a hero. Almost everyone tells him how proud they are of his efforts to preserve democracy and the American way of life. However, just before his return the family farm has been severely damaged by a fire which has devastated much of the local countryside. Patrick’s father is left with burnt and singed trees which are unlikely to bear any fruit that harvest. Yet despite his son’s sacrifice none of the freedom-loving banks are willing to advance any loans to tide the family over, and none of the patriots who want to buy the farm are willing to give the Norris family the full price. Not a very compassionate form of capitalism on display here.
That said, the fire is only the latest in a series of problems the Norris’s have suffered. Patrick’s older brother has problems with both his mobility and thought processes. He sees himself as a failure to his parents, a view shared by his father. But he looks up to Patrick and Patrick in turn does his bit to restore his brother’s confidence in himself and his status in the family. Though not with too much success, and the elder sibling increasingly turns to the local racist, gun-loving militia types for support, believing the blame for the family’s financial straits rests with their financial advisor. Who also happens to be the Mayor with her own problems in the shape of a difficult election campaign.
The crime element remains incidental throughout the book. The local police discover evidence to suggest the fire was started deliberately. The investigation thereafter is left to the local FBI in the shape of an agent intent on blaming the Taliban, or, if not them, the small number of local Muslims. The other criminal element consists of a possible assassination attempt on the Mayor by one or other of the local gun-lobby determined to contest large government, maybe even Patrick’s brother. After all in their scheme of things it was big government and liberals who caused the recession. Well, them and the Jewish communist bankers. However, Jefferson Parker cleverly turns this particular strand on its head in a manner which restates the traditional themes of crime fiction.
Full Measure is an intriguing look at contemporary America. Naturally, I would like to think, alongside Jefferson Parker, that the lunatic fringe in America is small, well under control, and that in good time the sensible Liberal Americans will triumph. But then you look at the recent mid-term election results and wonder if that optimism is well-founded.