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Kent Harrington
Red Jungle
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Dennis McMillan Publications
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-939-76750-3
Publication Date: 12-31-2004
325 Pages; $30.00
Date Reviewed: 03-30-05

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

Danger is always so attractive in fiction. We like our danger fictional, once removed, set apart from the nice safe place where we sit and read our books. And fiction is plenty happy to provide us with dangers real, unreal, contrived, derived, actual, factual, physical and intellectual. Reading about danger is a lot more fun than experiencing actual danger, and writers work hard to make that danger real. Like it or not, danger of some sort is an essential part of the fictional equation -- it's the equivalent of the equal sign, the bond between before and after, the reason to read, to pull the words through our eyes and into our brains. Danger is everywhere.

But writing about dangerous situations and subjecting your characters to danger is not equivalent to writing about danger itself. It's easy to use this equal sign without describing it. Writers who set themselves this task face the danger of lecturing to the reader. But if they pull it off, the rewards for writer and reader are substantial. Write about danger while subjecting your characters to its hazards, and you've got a book that's come alive for the reader, a book that's more than an equation about before and after.

There's plenty of before, after and danger in Kent Harrington's 'Red Jungle', but there's quite a bit more as well. Harrington develops his book from an insider's view of the miasmal swamp that is present-day Guatemala, building up layer after layer of character, experience, passion and pain. With deceptive simplicity, he draws the reader from the safety of genre fiction into the dangerous realms of literary fiction.

Russell Cruz-Price, born in Guatemala but educated in the States, works as a journalist for a famous English newspaper. He's sent back to the country of his birth to cover the crashing and burning economy, which he intends to exploit to his own advantage as well. Emptying his bank accounts, he buys a failing coffee farm on the advice of an archaeologist with the improbable name of Gustav Mahler. Mahler has convinced Russell that the untouched jungle on the land contains the Red Jaguar, a Mayan artifact of incredible value. Russell has also found his way into the lives of two very different women. Katherine Barkley is an attractive member of an NGO working for human rights; Beatrice La Selva is the British-born blonde wife of General Carlos La Selva. With Katherine he courts life; with Beatrice he courts death at the hands of her husband. As the government and the economy crumble around him, his past and present lead him to the treasure he seeks to the exclusion of all else.

'Red Jungle' fires off as a novel about the prototypical dangerous love. But Russell is much unhappier than readers realize, and Harrington effortlessly layers his past and his present to create a character who is considerably more complex than we at first suspect. By the time he comes to realize that, "He'd wanted to give up his self, the great monolith of his personality; he'd wanted to smash it, to pulverize it and walk away somehow different, or dead," he's earned his angst. Harrington is a master at writing a pulpy page-turner that has real depth and power. Wild assignations with his dangerous women alternate with carefully constructed portraits of a country as well as a character.

But what really sets 'Red Jungle' apart from any number of thrillers that aspire to be literature is Harrington's willingness and ability to address the subject of danger in all its forms and in all his characters. He flays open hearts and minds and follows the suicidal impulses of men and women offered so little in life that death becomes an attractive alterative. Readers in the throes of depression are going to find this novel as unpleasantly compelling as the edge of a cliff. Plunging into the novel, however, is a recoverable act.

'Red Jungle' is as beautiful a book to hold as it is to read, thanks to the fine design and binding that publisher Dennis MacMillan brings to everything he prints. Joe Servello's maps and illuminations add the kind of class that you can't buy. The gold foil endpapers, the lush cover, all contribute their own layer of quality.

'Red Jungle' has all the elements of high pulp, but it uses them with the skill of high literature. Harrington delivers a sequence of sucker punches, lulling the reader into a state of what seems to be predictably pleasant page-turning that gives way to earned shocks and honest horrors. Satisfying, thought provoking and thoroughly dangerous, 'Red Jungle' demonstrates that danger can be fun -- to read about.

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