7/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW: DARK ROAD, DEAD END BY PHILIP CIOFFARI
I love a novel that teaches me about a phenomenon or a historical event. In my past two posts, I talked about The Tilted World, which introduced me to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. This month I want to talk about another disaster that’s taking place even as I write: the smuggling of exotic and endangered animals, stolen from their natural habitats, into the United States for profit. Dark Road, Dead End, a novel by Philip Cioffari, explores the smarmy world of animal smugglers and the law enforcement officers who risk their lives trying to shut the practice down.
Cioffari notes on the novel’s back cover that the trade in exotic species is a multi-billion dollar industry that stands as the world’s third largest organized crime, after narcotics and arms running. In the state of Florida, it’s second only to the illicit trade in narcotics.
To bring this nefarious enterprise to light, Cioffari weaves a story in which it’s hard to know where the evil really lurks. Even the landscape is a combination of steamy darkness and eerie beauty. Early in the novel, Cioffari describes the canal banks of Mangrove Bay on the southern tip of Florida with “the twisted limbs of the mangrove the fibers of a web that held together this earthly universe of darkness with its finger-like streams and waterways.”
Into this universe of darkness comes Walter Morrison, posing as a Bible salesman but actually working for the U.S. Customs Service to ferret out the leaders of a ring of animal smugglers who sell their products to pet stores, private collectors, and even zoos. For three weeks, Morrison has worked to build a relationship with a young Guatemalan named Emilio so the boy will share information about secret shipments arriving at the fishery where he works. Morrison is confident that with Emilio’s help he can find out who’s running the operation, but on a Thursday night, his boss tells him he has to end the investigation with a raid on the fishery Sunday night.
Morrison knows this order makes no sense. He’s too close to the top to shut the investigation down. The only reason he can figure out for the raid, which he’s supposed to lead, is to take him out, permanently. He knows another agent met such an untimely death after the agent confided to Morrison he suspected top officials in the Mexican government might be involved in a drug smuggling operation he was investigating. The other agent led his raid that night.
So Morrison has a choice. Run away now or try to complete his investigation in the next 72 hours before the raid on the fishery. He chooses not to run, not only for himself, but also for Emilio, who has risked his life by acting as an informant.
In the time between Thursday night and Sunday, Dark Road, Dead End moves at a quickening pace. As Morrison works to speed up the investigation, he’s forced to dodge or collide with an array of helpful and unhelpful characters, including a retired Coast Guard admiral, a small-time crook on the lam from the mob, a down-on-her-luck waitress who wants a new start in life, and a sleazy opportunist and his manipulative girlfriend. The challenge for Morrison is deciding which ones he can trust, if any. Each character is a complex combination of needs, desires, emotions, and control or lack thereof. Morrison himself, awash in excessive drinking and an inability to get close to anyone, clings to the one piece of integrity he knows—his devotion to his job—until he’s slapped in the face with the horror that devotion can cause.
Cioffari has done a great job creating an atmosphere that mirrors the sinister nature of the crime he explores. Dark Road, Dead End feels slimy, but every now and then there’s a lovely flower growing in the swamp. Unfortunately, not all flowers in the swamp survive. Reading Dark Road, Dead End is an adventure into finding out whether the flowers or the swamp will win.