Written by Sam Hawken — First off, let’s just point out that Sam Hawken’s second novel has a fantastic cover. This folk art-style treatment of a Dia de los Muertos skull is striking, not least of all because of its impressive gold foil teeth (which the digital image to the left does no justice). Perhaps those shiny golden chompers are a sign of things to come. There might be greatness on the way for the author, making this book a great place for us to start New Talent November 2012. Meanwhile inside the book you’ll find plenty of gangsters and drug dealers – professions where, I understand, gold teeth are part of the uniform even if you don’t have tooth decay.
Filipe ‘Flip’ Morales has just been released from prison and heads home to El Paso, which is right on the Mexican border, across from the notorious city of Juarez. In prison he was looked after by the Aztecas, a cross-border gang of dealing in arms, drugs and death. Outside, his mother cooks his meals and her boyfriend Alfredo gives him a job at a local fresh produce depot. But Jose Martinez, head of the Aztecas in El Paso also has a job for him.
Entertained in nightclubs and at barbeques by Jose and the ‘Indians’, he meets Graciela. She has close ties to the gang but dreams of opening her own nail bar, just like Flip would like to put his violent crimes behind him and turn the carpentry skills he learned in prison into a legitimate business. They know that with the Aztecas in their lives they’re walking a tightrope and soon Jose involves Flip in the sniffing out and eventual murder of an informer.
The thing is, Jose’s got the wrong man. It’s Flip himself who is informing on the Aztecas. He’s feeding information to Cristina Salas and Bob Robinson of the El Paso police, who in turn are working with the FBI. Across the border, Mexican cop Matias Segura has been shaking down Aztecas – to the point of torture – finding out about their cross-border activites. El Paso law enforcement, the Mexican police and the FBI want to cut off the drugs-for-guns commerce the Aztecas are so good at, and that means nailing Jose and his Mexican counterpart in Juarez.
Hawken’s prose is plain and direct, but full of atmosphere – even what’s unsaid helps you build a picture of Flip’s life and the dilemmas he faces. His fear of Jose is immense, and his shame at letting Alfredo and his mother down is gut wrenching. Undiluted emotions tend to rule him, though he spends much of his time supressing them. He’s the strongest and most developed of the characters. Cristina constantly worries that she won’t make it home to her autistic son, Freddie. Matias is so determined to break the Aztecas that he carries on working even after an assassination attempt, causing his beloved wife to leave for a safer city.
As things progress the level of violence, Jose’s menace, and the tension of the plotline just keep on ramping up. The author handles the bloody scenes very well, never allowing them to overshadow the themes of his story, which are all to do with self-control, doing the right thing and protecting those you love. There is a constant paranoia that one of the characters you’ve grown to like is going to get a bullet behind the ear. The plot itself could perhaps have done with a little more intrigue and finesse – things played out more or less as I expected them to. Although it was gripping through to the final chapters, more twists and a few major deceptions, if well handled, would have blasted this already good piece of borderland noir into five-star territory.
Ultimately, this is a dark book, with a few grains of optimism sparkling in there thanks to certain characters. Sam Hawken is a thoughtful author whose work is easy to read despite the very real and troubled cities that Tequila Sunset deals with. We look forward to seeing more from this author – watch for our interview with him in a couple of days time.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars