Written by Sam Hawken — Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juarez and Tequila Sunset set the ball rolling for this popular author who takes a look at the perils of life on both sides of the border between Mexico and Texas. We last reviewed Missing in 2014, but we missed the 2013 novel La Frontera, so this is a bit of a catch-up review.
Ana Torres is a Texas Ranger, based in the sleepy town of Presidio, a few miles away from the border. She patrols the dividing line most days, riding her horse across the harsh landscape, looking for crossers – illegals brought over into the US by guides known as coyotes.
Torres discovers the corpse of a crosser, face down in the sand, shot several times in the back. Nearby is a rape tree, where the underwear of a dozen or so crosser females has been hung in a visible sign that each has been taken by the coyote. Such is a crosser’s desperation to make it to America that the women accept this degradation for what it is. Torres begins to investigate the dead man, playing local politics and living life at the steady pace a blisteringly hot, fly blown desert town demands.
She knows there’s very little chance of identifying the victim or finding his killer. Then a call comes in. There’s a group of illegals on US territory. Torres and her colleagues set out to stop them, with fatal consequences.
Luis Gonzales is a store owner in the Mexican town of Ojinaga. He used to be a coyote until his conscience got the better of him, and he now sells goods and advice to crossers, living a quiet life with his multitude of dogs. Things get complicated for Luis when Angel, the local fixer, attempts to persuade him back into the crossing trade. After soldiers smash up Luis’ shop and give him a sever beating, he reluctantly agrees to return to his old life.
Marisol Herrera wants to cross. She lives in the Mexican mountains of El Salvador, stuck in a backwater until her grandmother dies and Marisol is released from her obligations. First Marisol heads to the city to stay with her brother, before attempting the difficult journey to the border. Finally, Marisol makes it to Ojinaga and crosses with Luis on his first job as a coyote. When over the border events take a nasty turn as members of Luis’ group take advantage of the situation…
Sam Hawken does harsh reality and does it well. Life is pretty tough for all of his characters, but without being 110 per cent grim. The author paints the arid surroundings and its harsh realities in vivid colours. The authors previous Crime Writers’ Association Dagger nominations are testament to his ability to get the balance right and La Frontera is in the same ballpark.
La Frontera is unusual in that it’s split into three roughly equal parts, each with their own characters and struggles and each running separately until the smart conclusion. However, the author’s challenge is to get us to invest time and empathy in these characters. For example, Torres. We learn about her life, relationships and career which surround the steady investigation into the corpse which opened the novel. However, at a third of the way in we leave her and move to Luis, and at quite a critical juncture with some unanswered life questions. It’s a bit like the ending of Inception – either you like it, or you don’t.
On the other hand, what we do gain is a look at the issue of illegal immigration into the US and its effects on the three key groups of people that it involves. La Frontera is a worthy addition to Hawken’s increasingly impressive portfolio.
You can also read an interview with Sam Hawken by clicking the link.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars