Subject and setting can mean a lot when reading a book. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction: For the right writer, a narrative is a way to introduce unexpected themes, share revelatory information, and potentially illuminate societal questions that the reader may have been considering. C. E. Morgan’s acclaimed novel The Sport of Kings is the story of a family’s obsessive involvement in the world of high-stakes horseracing – but its plot also allows Morgan to explore questions of race, class, and violence. Robert Andrew Powell’s This Love Is Not for Cowards could be mistaken for a sociological look at the supporters and players for a hard-luck Mexican soccer team – but the fact that said team is based in Juarez makes the narrative that much more expansive, and brings in questions of organized crime, immigration, and borders.
Somewhere between the two, you’ll find Joe Tone’s Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream. The story Tone tells here is one that touches on a host of hot-button issues: immigration, organized crime, and asset forfeiture among them. But Tone does more than simply tell a gripping true-crime narrative; in Bones he delves into an investigation’s gray areas and how questions of who benefits may elude traditional concepts of “right” and “wrong.” In terms of the American political landscape circa 2017, it also reminds the reader of something crucial: Attempting to treat different political issues as though they exist in a vacuum is a mistake. Bones brilliantly illustrates the way that all of this can be interconnected – and how that can make addressing them that much more complicated.
Bones begins by introducing the reader to José Treviño, a middle-aged man born in Mexico who had immigrated to the United States when he was young. By all accounts, he was a responsible family man – unlike his estranged younger brother Miguel, who made a name for himself as a particularly brutal figure in a prominent Mexican drug cartel. (Tone begins the book with an empathic portrait of José crossing the border between the two nations and his dealings with law enforcement along the way.) Things became more complicated when José, a man who’s lived modestly his whole life, began making substantial investments in the world of quarter-horse racing, which in turn attracted the attention of both the larger racing community and a group of FBI agents looking to target Miguel.
Tone points out that one key figure wasn’t worried about being dragged down in the investigation: “because he was a wealthy white rancher on American soil, the rules didn’t apply in the same way.” And he points out that the large-scale money laundering in which massive banks were complicit offered little danger of imprisonment for the bankers involved. Tone also indicts the hypocrisy of the racing community, whose members were ostensibly shocked at various cartel heads’ sudden interest in their sport – for reasons both egotistical (the glory of backing a winner) and practical (horse racing is as good as anything for money laundering) – but were perfectly happy to take money that originated with cartels as long as they didn’t look too closely.
The number of high-profile political issues established over the course of the book are legion: immigration, the drug war (and its origins in the Nixon administration), clashes between different law enforcement agencies, asset forfeiture, political corruption, implicit bias in law enforcement, and general institutional hypocrisy. But, more importantly, Tone also shows the way that all of these are interconnected: There are no easy ways to extricate one of these complex dynamics from the rest.
Most of the people Tone writes about come off as sympathetic; the cartel heads responsible for setting these events in motion, murdering their rivals, and executing numerous people remain largely in the background. They’re the only clear-cut villains here; everything else is much blurrier. The dedicated lawman pursuing this case has his blind spots, while the target of his investigation seems far removed from being a criminal mastermind. While the denouement doesn’t necessarily have the same degree of an “everything you know is wrong” twist as, say, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Tone makes a convincing case for how race and unconscious bias may have influenced things considerably, and allowed one of the figures in the book to profit substantially from illicit activities.
Bones is a frequently gripping read. Tone gives a fantastic sense of the different personalities involved in the case, brings readers up to speed on its complex legal and procedural issues, and gives a good overview of the world of quarter-horse racing as well. But what makes this book stand out even more is its ambiguities and dissonances, and the way that Tone sets the scene. As politicians and pundits spend the coming months and years heatedly debating the issues that inform the world of this book, Bones is a reminder that solutions to these problems won’t be easy, and may well clash with one another.