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The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken

The Dead Women of Juarez

In the dim and distant past, the Charles Atlas marketing campaign showed a ten-stone weakling converted into Arnold Schwarzenegger without the need for steroids. Well, if the last book I read was a pasty-faced, weak-kneed specimen, this is muscular prose. At this point, I should defer to those commenting on Detectives Beyond Borders who beautifully skewer the clichés we “reviewers” or “critics” tend to use as shorthand to express our view of the lastest prose package we read. With “lastest prose package” I’m trying to break new ground and avoid using more clichéd words like “latest book”. This is not a success, I know. I’ll quit while I’m behind. So where am I on muscular prose?

Obviously, all prose has to be strong enough to carry the story to the end (sic), so I suppose I’m making a distinction between a use of language that’s lean, i.e. cut down to the bare essentials or minimalist — most people would refer to Hemingway as an exemplar — and a prose style that packs the maximum amount of information into an economical space. This avoids the text being densely written in complex sentence structures which, more often than not, prevents the narrative from having any pace. What I like is an accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose that tells me just what I need to know to give me a real sense of the atmosphere of the setting, a good level of insight into the characters, and enough roughage to aid in the digestion of the content. This latter requirement does not require the book to have a message or anything high-minded about it. In the wrong hands, this appeal to our intelligence can be somewhat patronising as the author tries to convince us he or she thinks more profoundly about the world than we do. But I find enjoyment is maximised if the themes or ideas on display provoke some thought.

The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken (Serpent’s Tail, 2011) certainly comes with a message attached to it. The city of Ciudad Juárez is notorious for the several thousand women who have “disappeared” and the feminicidios. The wave of attacks began in the 1990s and left hundreds of women dead over the decade. More recent statistics are alarming with some 304 killed in 2010, and state officials already saying more women have been killed in 2012 than in any previous year in this so-called femicide era. This slow escalation has coincided with the rapid growth of the city due to the arrival of the maquiladoras, the manufacturing facilities operating in a free trade zone. If you want more background, read “Madonna of the Maquiladora” by Gregory Frost. It’s wonderful novelette dealing with a phenomenon provoked by the more venal side of capitalism.

Sam Hawken looking suitably Texan

Sam Hawken looking suitably Texan

Anyway, this novel focuses on the murder of Paloma Salazar, a woman who worked for Mujeres sin Voces, a loose organisation of women who offer support to those who have lost wives and daughters, and is a visible presence that occasionally embarrasses the local law enforcement into being seen to do something (although it’s usually only for show). She was the sister of Esteban, a low-level drug distributer and pusher, and a lover to Kelly Courter, an American boxer on the run from himself and probable charges for dangerous driving charges — or perhaps the young boy died making it a homicide. Naturally both men are suspects and, as is the way in Mexico, suspects are asked questions in an aggressive way.

The first half of the book is told from Kelly’s point of view. The second half switches to Rafael Sevilla, a old police officer who finds himself provoked by sadness, guilt and loneliness into investigating the case. Both his wife and daughter disappeared some time ago. This means he knows people in the Mujeres sin Voces. He had known Paloma. He had also been grooming Kelly as a possible informer who might track Esteban’s supplier. Once he starts to look beyond the superficial police investigation that assumed the foreigner’s guilt, he finds himself on the slippery slope. In a short space of time, he follows the evidence to someone who knew Kelly, and then he knows the name of Carlos Ortiz, which means he knows too much. Fortunately, he has a younger more idealistic friend called Enrique Palencia who works for Captain Garcia, the man beating the truth out of Kelly and Estaban. Between them perhaps justice can be done.

This is a quite remarkably assured piece of writing for what’s billed as a first novel. No matter what convenient shorthand term we might choose to describe the prose, it creates a hothouse atmosphere of violence and fear as, first Kelly, and then the two police officers, try to understand what happened to Paloma. From this brief introduction, you will understand The Dead Women of Juarez is not a book for the faint-hearted. There’s considerable brutality on display followed by injury and death. Unlike the more traditional thriller, there’s no sparky hero who gets knocked down and is up again in seconds for the next triathlon challenge. The two primary protagonists are not exactly angels. They come to us as damaged goods. By the time we’re finished, people have real injuries requiring medical treatment. Some die in unpleasant ways. Such is life, not just in Ciudad Juárez, but in all large cities where corruption is rife and the strong tend to prevail.

To some extent I accept the message of this book — that there’s something seriously wrong with Ciudad Juárez in particular and our patriarchal attitude to women in general — but I’m not judging the book on its desire to highlight the lack of justice in this place. It’s a thriller, a particularly good thriller. The author could have made the same point by setting it in any country where the admitted murder statistics show more women than men as victims, i.e. Brunei Darussalam (51%), Malta (75%), Nauru (80%), Slovenia (54%), or the Republic of Korea (51%) — assuming, of course, the statistics provided by local police forces are reliable. According to the statistics reported by the Mexican government, there are nine men killed for every woman, i.e. no matter how horrendous the number of women killed, they are only 10% of the total number of murder victims. Compassion fatigue is not a new phenomenon and it should not take anything away from individual injustices. I simply note the ability to fictionalise gives us the power to universalise, and wonder whether a book gains more power by being specific or by referring to the more general situation. However you choose to answer this question, The Dead Women of Juarez was justifiably shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger and it shows Sam Hawken as a writer of great promise. You should read it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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