It’s a tough sell setting crime fiction against a backdrop of real life horrors without coming across as sensationalist or trivial. But this is precisely what Sam Hawken attempts to do in his first book, Dead Women of Juarez, and pulls it off fantastically.
The real life horror in question takes place in the Mexican city of Juarez, just across the border from the United States. Juarez is famous for two things: as a magnet for multinational companies seeking cheap, mainly female, labour, and the fact since 1993 as many as 5,000 women have been murdered there and no one has been brought to justice.
Hawken inserts into this picture the fictional character of Kelly Courter, a washed up, junkie boxer who makes a living as a punching bag for younger, hungrier Mexican fighters. As a sideline, he traffics and sells drugs for Esteban, his friend and the brother of Kelly’s on again, off again girlfriend and women’s rights activist, Paloma.
Kelly is in self-exile in Juarez, escaping the legal and moral consequences of a fatal mistake, the details of which we learn much later on in the book. It’s a day-by-day struggle to survive in a tough town, constantly being shadowed by grizzled Mexican narcotics cop, Sevilla, apparently intent on busting Kelly for his illegal activities.
Hawken introduces the horror of what is happening in Juarez with a slow burn, not a bang, through the posters of missing women on telegraph poles and the fear of women on the street. I can’t say much more without giving the story away. Paloma disappears and Kelly comes off a major drug binge to discover he is the prime suspect and his fate is in the hands of Sevilla, a man with secrets and ghosts of his own, in many ways as much as stranger in Mexico as Kelly.
Hawken’s writing is sparse and basic. His bio says he is a Texas native. If so he must have spent time in Mexico because his depiction of the violence, poverty and fleeting beauty of the country feels like it can only have come from first hand exposure.
The book has its problems. In particular, the ending felt too quick and forced. But these don’t distract from its many strengths. Dead Women of Juarez is a gritty, gripping noir. Like the best crime fiction, it is also holds a mirror to some pretty horrific realities and a fight for justice that shows no sign of being won anytime soon.
If this is what Hawken does with his first novel, I’m looking forward to his next.
Dead Women of Juarez is available through Serpent’s Tail.