“Devil’s Kitchen” is gritty, honest, grounded. Check the list of sources Clark Lohr used in research and you can tell why this tough story rings true. There’s no gloss, no fluff. Detective Manuel Aguilar is leading the charge on this investigation and you can feel the work, the meaning of that word. Locating witnesses, checking paperwork, listening for lies. The case starts with a head (no body) in a landfill. The trail starts with faint clues.
Lohr switches points of view here and there, but most of the time we are with Manny and we see how he engages others to help with the investigation. Manny is no Lone Ranger. “Devil’s Kitchen” is well populated. That may sound like an odd point to praise, but Manny has an extended family in his personal life and relies on an interesting extended family at work, too. At the core of all the relationships is the one between Manny and his girlfriend Reina. The relationship lets us see Manny’s likable heart. Their trust and connection is just as palpable as the rest of the story. Their bond has grit, too. Reina is sharp, knowledgeable and maybe a step or two ahead of Manny, helping him see a bigger landscape about how Arizona and its history of being exploited. She encourages Manny to look inside himself and tap his own intelligence. She’s his spirit guide—“she’s the light, this woman”— and it works. She knows literature, quotes Shakespeare and has a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of Patti Smith over her headboard. Reina’s a winner and Manny’s affection for her reflects well on him, too.
The writing is sharp but not flashy. Lohr slips in little gift images here and there. A Rotweiler is “friendly, quivering meatloaf of a dog.” But most of the energy goes to the story and its forward motion. Lohr keeps events moving, but there’s never a headlong rush, either. If anything, he lingers most as Manny and Reina exchange ideas, contemplate their lives. It’s a tricky balance and Lohr nails it.
Early on, Manny makes a few mistakes. He’s in the middle of a few too many “officer-involved” shootings. He’s soon without badge but the investigation doesn’t stop and soon Manny is making his way across and around the border country, which is run by its own rules. There is a trap, rattlesnakes and a well-orchestrated shootout. The developers and their “shady dealings” are exposed the well-drawn streets of Tucson are completely alive and we are glad real people like Manny Aguilar are there to clean them up.