Written by Tim Baker — It seems like a long time since Tim Baker’s explosive JFK assassination based debut, Fever City, hit the shelves in April 2016. Fever City was a recommended read with Crime Fiction Lover and was nominated for equally prestigious awards such as the CWA’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger. So, has Baker’s second novel been worth the wait?
The book is set in May 2000, in Ciudad Real, Mexico. Two men dispose of a corpse, dumping the body of Isobel Torres on a roadside pile of rubbish. She is the latest victim in an increasingly long list of female sweatshop workers. Number 873 to be exact.
The novel unfolds through the eyes of five key characters. Pilar is a union activist, single mindedly working with a small group of colleagues to focus attention on the working conditions in the city’s multiple sweatshops. She’s an out-of-towner, only in Ciudad Real for this specific objective. It’s a risky business, going up against the men who run the sweatshops and hold all the power.
Fuentes is the cop investigating the murders. But it’s proving difficult as his bosses start shutting down the investigation. Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of the local crime boss El Santo. Not the brightest spark, El Santo himself has to fight hard to keep his position and stay alive.
Ventura is an American journalist. She’s been living with a fund manager called Carlos for nearly three years. For some time she’s been trying to write a story about Mexico’s most famous author, Felipe Mayor, and finally she gets chance to meet him. However, soon afterwards Carlos cuts and runs when the fund he’s managing on behalf of some very dangerous and powerful men crashes. Ventura is left to fend for herself. The only person she can go to with enough strength to keep her alive is Felipe Mayor.
Last and not least is Padre Marcio a penitent local priest who has the mark of God on him. We see Marcio growing up, living in a boy’s home then turning into an increasingly important local dignitary, growing his influence in Ciudad Real as he takes over children’s homes and runs them on behalf of the church, teaching God’s way in the process.
Initially the five threads (Pilar, Fuentes, El Santo, Padre Marcio and Ventura) appear unconnected. However, it soon transpires that Fuentes moved to Ciudad Real specifically to pick up this investigation. He and Pilar are forced together, both ultimately with the same objective, despite Pilar’s natural tendency to distrust the police. Ventura’s nose for a story gets her involved with Pilar too. She can write about the treatment of women in sweatshops and take it to the wider world. However, the cards are seriously stacked against them, nobody wants the truth to come out. And the name Padre Marcio keeps cropping up over and over. It seems the cover-up runs deeper than anyone dared suspect…
Wow, is this ever worth the near two-year hiatus. Tim Baker has woven together another intricately plotted, multiple narrative tale. Given there are five perspectives this could so easily have spun out of control, but the author deftly keeps the plot on track, dropping out little nuggets periodically. It helps that the narrator of each chapter is well signposted so switching between the perspectives is easily handled. The use of the present tense can be frustrating for some readers, but here it works very well, keeping us very much in the here and now where all the action occurs. This contrasts with Fever City, which was split across several time periods.
All in all this is a fascinating, immersive page-turning read. For those interested in reading crime fiction based in the border territory between the US and Mexico, City Without Stars will sit alongside powerful novels like The Power of Dog by Don Winslow and The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars