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Black Hand, The – Review

by: Blatchford, Chris

Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, NY

Location: 10 East 53rd St

Copyright: 2008

Type: Paperback


reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009


Summary: The rise of Rene Enrriquez in La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, and the gang’s influence and control of the California prision system.

After answering the question of why societies lockup those deemed to have exhibited criminal behavior, the next question to answer is what rights these criminals have while imprisoned. In reading Chris Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND, the two questions crystallize into a wall. Very little of what Blatchord says gets beyond that wall. The inexhaustible list of names, the “politics”, the stabbings, even a person, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, whose exploits Blatchord is chronicling-none of it penetrates the wall of two questions.

Blatchord sticks to his subject with unyielding tenacity while at the same time tossing bricks onto the wall of two questions like a self-feeding wood chipper spewing out flakes of wood. Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, tired of the gang life, leaves the gang. Given the venue Blatchord has detailed in telling the story of Enriquez, the outcome of Enriquez’s life seems of trivial import. Is that part of the problem here? That a man who has murdered, maimed, peddled illicit drugs changes his perception of life is seen as an act of triviality highlights the intellectual and spiritual chasm we have between looking at people and crime. Perhaps the real wall to understanding the redeemed prisoner experience as chronicled in books such as THE BLACK HAND is not questions of crime definitions and bureaucratic prescripts, but of how we value a human life-any human life.

The title of the book comes from the “life size Black Hand tattooed” on the chest with a small unpainted “M” for Mafia in the middle of the tattooed hand-palm. This tattoo tags a member of the “Mexican Mafia”. Unlike the “Italian Mafia”, with a convoluted and murky history that may or may not stretch back to political corruption in 19th century Sicily, the “Mexican Mafia” is a product of the American penal system. Blatchord’s exploration into the origins of the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme (Spanish pronunciation of the letter “M”), is about as complete as it can get. He starts chapter 2 of the book with, “It all began in 1957 at the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, California . . .”

Prison gangs are institutions within institutions. Though California seems to have the most entrenched prison gangs, followed by Texas, the fact is that what the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls a security threat group (STG) are found in all prisons. If you take into consideration that nearly all prisons have rules against the existence of a gang “institution” within the prison, the fact that the gangs exist and operate according to a subset of gang-rules, pretty much makes prison gangs institutions unto themselves. Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND offers plenty to bolster this assessment.

Rene Enriquez, who grew up in East Los Angeles, was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to a total of nine years and two months to the California State prison system. At the age of twenty-two he was voted into the Mexican Mafia by gang members in Folsom Prison. Essentially what “made” membership meant was that instead of merely maiming, killing, and stealing at the behest of and for the enrichment of a “higher” level member of the organization, Enriquez could now get others to do the same for him. He was at the top of a food chain in which he was still prey, but the food label was tattooed over with the mark of the Mexican Mafia. It is an Alice-in-wonderland version of corporate organization in which power and privilege is an illusion stemming from symbols of power and privilege. As Enriquez, believed to be one of the top five La Eme members at the time, eventually learned, the symbols were hollow.

In January 1993, Enriquez plea-bargained for a life-sentence in prison for ordering the killing of Cynthia Gavaldon, one of his street dealers and the girlfriend of another La Eme member. At the time he was charged with the Gavaldon murder, he was being held in jail for a string of robberies for which he was also charged. His conversion from gang-life came in 2002 while at Pelican Bay prison. Among the reasons cited was that he had tired of the politics of gang life. He also saw the violence and carnage as a waste. From the facts presented by Blatchord, it is apparent that the mercurial tick of time while locked away in prison caused Enriquez to change. It is ironic that Enriqueze quit his life of gang membership the same year that the body of a 15 year old girl, Brenda Sierra, was found in San Bernardino National Forest, some fifty miles from her home in East Los Angeles. The police believe that her killers, still at large, were members of a gang trying to intimidate Sierra’s mother and brother who witnessed a gang-related murder. Cynthia Gavaldon and Brenda Sierra could not be more different as people, yet each were apparently forced into a vehicle, driven a long distance from home to an isolated road and killed. The superficial similarities, the utter senselessness of it, are like cobwebs brushing against the face as you contemplate the redemption of Rene Enriquez.

Because of Enriquez’s change of heart, the criminal justice system has been able to send more people like the old Enriques to prison. He has testified against other gang members. He has provided details of gang operations. Enriquez has recommendations for destroying the power of La Eme in particular and prison gangs in general. It is a list spelling out what you think prison officials and the judicial system would be doing automatically-isolating criminals from the society upon which they prey and basically holding criminals accountable for criminal acts while confined to prison. Item 2 on his list for instance calls for shutting off “Mafia” communications. This is recognition that the power of prison gangs comes not so much from what they do in prison but the control and influence they have “on the streets”. The conduits for that control and influence stems from communicating with family, friends and even their lawyers. Another item on his list, number 3, is to totally isolate gang members confined to prison.

There are hints in THE BLACK HAND that “bleeding heart liberals” and the socially conscious but gullible are responsible for the abysmal inhumanity of the prison system. People are locked away and maintain all the rights of freedom except freedom of movement. The result is a closed society in which “security threat groups” become the arbiters of life. In short, the very behavior that resulted in confinement away from the larger society is allowed to exist within prison because everyone is endowed with certain individual rights. No mention is made of the opposite camp: those who believe prisons should be a nether world where the predatory are confined until they experience the epiphany of social enlightenment. Without that enlightenment, there can be no individual rights. Between the two extremes are fundamental issues of human rights. Fundamental human rights, not individual rights. Perhaps the two are distinct and separate. Or, more likely, the former the foundation of the latter.

Nowhere in the book does the author come out and discuss the revolving door the American prison system has institutionalized, but he does quote prisoners who at least give a nod to the door’s existence. It is only fitting. Any discussion of the penal system eventually comes down to the wall of two questions. Blatchord avoids the wall. It is only fitting. He attempts an objective look at a static California gang culture and accomplishes his goal. THE BLACK HAND is definitely worth reading. Beware however that it is extremely irritating if you are annoyed by unanswered questions and the cobwebs of yesterday’s news.




Beyond Reach – Review

by: Slaughter, Karin

Publisher: Dell, Random House, Inc

Location: New York, NY

Copyright: 2007

Cover: Patrice Sheridan

Type: Paperback


reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009


Summary: Medical Examiner Sara Linton assists husband, Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, attempt to clear one of his detectives, Lena Adams, of a crime.


As those of you know who follow Trices Book Review Journal we do not follow authors, we follow ideas. Karen Slaughter’s BEYOND REACH is a stimulating slice of fiction with a conventional treatment of an idea that goes just far enough beyond the conventional to be insightful. Any writing, whether fiction, expository or the lyrical poetic, that opens vistas to new perspectives is worth reading. BEYOND REACH is in this category.

The main characters of BEYOND REACH are wallowing in troubles. Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver is called upon to exonerate one of his detectives, Lena Adams, accused of murder in a far away town. Medical examiner Sara Linton, the seemingly reluctant wife of Tolliver, is mulling the consequences of a medical malpractice lawsuit. She accompanies her husband to Reese, Georgia where all their troubles coalesce in a drama spanning 576 page. By the end, more trouble emerges for Sara Linton, the heroine of the Sara Linton sagas.

Though certainly not the most interesting character in this novel, Detective Lena Adams is the pivotal force moving the story. She finds herself in trouble because of her inability to step back from herself and assess. Hers is a character driven by circumstance. She does not create circumstances nor necessarily respond to circumstances. Instead she is buffeted by the multi-piston engine of circumstance while remaining locked tightly within herself. Such a character is the antithesis of the dramatic. No gain, just the pain. Raised by her uncle, she is still mourning the death of her twin sister who died six years earlier. It is to visit this uncle, Hank, and the convergence of troubles in the town of Reese that unfolds as drama.

In BEYOND REACH, we learn that the early life of Lena Adams is an edifice built around a scaffold of lies heaped upon her as “protection”. The over-riding question for the reader is whether that scaffold explains the predicament of Lena Adam being the prime suspect in a murder investigation. A smart, aggressive woman, she is not liked by the wife of her boss, Sara. The boss, Police Chief Tolliver, feels an affinity for Adams that he does not put into words. He does know there is a problem however. He was previously called upon to send her “ex-boyfriend, ex-felon, ex-neo-Nazi” back to prison.

It may or may not have been by design that Slaughter is mum on the affinity Chief Tolliver has for Lena Adams. But in BEYOND REACH, by not offering readers something to hang an opinion on, the author makes the story more compelling as real life. (You have to read Slaughter’s other Sara Linton saga, INDELIBLE, to get material for “informed speculation” on the loyalty Chief Tolliver has for his down-beat detective). Detective Adams becomes an empathic character early on when she warns Chief Tolliver and Sara to leave Reese immediately for their own safety. She does this from a hospital bed where she is recovering from injuries sustained after a car exploded. The car had been set on fire with a body inside. Why does she issue the warning to leave? Compassion for the Chief and Sara? The warning is reminiscent of scenes in horror movies in which the unknowing are warned of the body-snatchers. Fear, compassion, and ignorance of “what’s out there”. Lena’s warning has all the trappings. But there is something more. By the end of the novel, we realize that the warning was just another layer of scaffolding on Lena Adam’s life. Good intentions with irrelevant consequences adding fuel for the journey into self-destruction.

Strong characters spiraling into the abyss of self-destruction always have plenty of anchors to grab onto to abort the descent. Detective Lena Adams is no exception. But–and this is the fresh perspective the author adds to the scenario–the anchors themselves may be on their own journey toward self-destruction. Destruction of a marriage for instance.

While Detective Lena Adams languishes as an action-character doing battle with herself, Chief Tolliver and wife Sara Linton morph into two people sharing a life and a marriage. They end up that way, but they too are individually tempted to become self-obsessed, to narrow their focus. The author’s crafting lets us appreciate the conflicting emotions drawing Tolliver and Sara into the drama surrounding Adams. Their journey, condensed and telescoped into a story-line with flashbacks, blends into the storm that is the life of Lena Adams. The good intentions of Chief Tolliver and begrudging assistance of wife Sara saves Lena. But there are consequences. The parallel trajectory of destruction, both aborted, gives pause for thought.

BEYOND REACH is fiction at its best. Entertaining and thought provoking.




Assassin, The – Review

by: Coonts, Stephen

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

Location: 175 Fifth Ave

Copyright: 2008

Cover: Joshua Sheldon

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009


Summary: Abu Qasim, an al Qaeda terrorist leader is on the loose and private industry has banned together under the leadership of CIA operative Jake (what else?) Grafton and his trusty sidekick, Tommy Carmellini, to defeat him.


All the typical ingredients of an international spy-adventure thriller: superhero, super villain, damsel in distress, civilization hangs in the balance. The good guys lose a few, but ultimately win. Stephen Coonts does not employ super-gadgets or typical super hero powers to move his story along. Instead the focus is on human foibles and hubris.

The main characters are Jake Grafton, a CIA employee, and his trusty side-kick, Tommy Carmellini. Although it sounds like the Batman and Robbin duo-pre-Christian Bale and “Batman Begins”, an awesome commandeering of a comic book-Grafton and Carmellini are merely spikes on the tires of a bureaucratic lawn mower. The storyline is a snippet of current-events editorializing: the United State government is incapable of dealing with threats from non-traditional adversaries such as terrorists, so a group of well-heeled fat cats get together to fund a counter-terrorism effort. The effort of course is discreetly sanctioned by the government. Kind of reminds you of the Kenneth C. Bucchi book on the U. S. government’s war on drugs, C.I.A: COCAINE IN AMERICA? (reviewed here in December 1994). The difference is that Bucchi was supposed to be writing history. Coonts is exercising his considerable talents at fiction. He does a good job.

The story pivots around the damsel in distress. In this instance, one Marisa Petrou. Is she the daughter of Abu Qasim, arch-terrorist extraordinaire, a man who changes his appearances like the seasons, who is always one step ahead of the intelligence services trying to eliminate him? Or is Marisa Petrou the adopted daughter of a wealthy Swiss family who herself was once captured and tortured by same said Abu Qasim? Will Jake Grafton be able to thaw efforts of mastermind extraordinaire Abu Qasim to kill off the well-heeled fat cats pouring money into his covert operations? Will trusty side-kick Tommy Carmellini and damsel in distress, possibly daughter of the mastermind extraordinaire Abu Qasim, fall madly, madly in love and escape to a daytime soap opera? Is the sound of ricocheting of AK47 bullets the new ambiance of singing in the rain? Never mind. These are rhetorical questions.

None of the characters in this novel come across as flesh and blood people. But it is an entertaining story because it attempts to straddle the line between reality and wishful thinking. It feeds into the perception that terrorists are super-human adversaries who can only be dealt with by super-human heroes. Since there are no super-human heroes, we are left with a cranky, experienced CIA agent and a covert group of super-well-heeled fat cats throwing money into the battle. More to the point, the laws governing the Western concept of civilization do not apply to terrorists. Coonts does and excellent job of focusing on the issue without really bringing it up as an issue-except in passing.

When Jake Grafton meets Huntington Winchester, the mogul who pitched the idea of a privately financed terrorist hunt to the President, Grafton tells him, “Our problem, Mr. Winchester, is not finding men and women to fight terrorists, it’s finding the terrorists. That is the most pressing problem facing the Western world today. We are looking for violent criminals who hide among the innocent, look just like them, behave just like them, except for that few seconds when they becomes soldiers for the Devil”. It is an interesting soliloquy. It is interesting because what it seems to be saying is that the war on terrorists is really the age-old war against the anti-civilization elements of the world-those most societies have deemed criminals. Within this context of semantics, THE ASSASSIN does a service. How does a society-in this case, world society-treat its criminals? Of course, the question assumes that criminals are a part of society-a dysfunctional part but a part nevertheless. Maybe they are not. Maybe they are an aberration one level below your murderer, rapist, or Bernie Madoff type characters.

In THE ASSASSIN, terrorists are so far beneath society-civilization–that special means must be employed to address them. Makes a good adventure story. But the danger in becoming “uncivilized” to address this scourge is only hinted at in THE ASSASSIN. Of course, a few of the wealthy financiers of the covert CIA anti-terrorist effort are killed by the terrorists. But one suspects that there is something worst than death in fighting terrorists and that is life having slithered in the same gutter in which they were formed. This may be a point that THE ASSASSIN is making-covertly.



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