Broiler by Eli Cranor

3 Mins read
Broiler by Eli Cranor front cover

The broiler is a breed of chicken favoured by the American poultry industry for its flesh. If you’re hatched a broiler, you’re dead meat, and the sense of fatalism hinted at in the title is something that will certainly cast its shadow across the narrative in this new novel from Eli Cranor, a rising star in rural noir. This is the tale of the haves and have nots at a chicken processing plant, the widening financial and social gap between them, and what happens when they come into conflict. Broiler was on our list of the most wanted crime novels for 2024, so let’s see what it’s all about.

The setting is Springdale, Arkansas which is the headquarters of one of the world’s largest meat producing companies. The author was a public school teacher in Arkansas and many of his Mexican American students used to fall asleep in class. They’d been working 10-hour night shifts at the chicken processing plant – and talking to his students has given the author insight into the industry as well as inspiration for the novel.

The book opens with a group of women who lunch and who are active in local junior baseball. They are the wives of Detmer Foods plant managers. Mimi Jackson hopes to form a support group with the other young mothers and shares the fact that she has postpartum anxiety. In fact, Mimi actually has postpartum depression along with suicidal thoughts.

Her husband, Luke, grew up poor and is a very ambitious man. He now runs Detmer’s largest plant in the state and there are seven chicken houses plus a luxurious two-story mansion on their property. They appear to have it all. Luke intends to work his way up the Detmer career ladder to join the executive team.

In contrast, for Gabriela Menchaca life hasn’t worked out as intended. Her family returned to Mexico, leaving Gabby alone in Springdale. She was a good student and it was her dream to go to college. She supported herself by working on the production line at Detmer Foods, dropped out of high school and gave up her plans of college. Now she dreams of owning a house.

Edwin Saucedo and his mother lived in the Econo Lodge where she worked. After his mother died, Edwin moved into the trailer that Gabby rents. They have furnished it on the cheap with makeshift furniture. He and Gabby have been working at Detmer Foods for seven years. After a personal tragedy, Edwin tried to file a claim and organise a walkout. He was unsuccessful and feels hopeless so he tries to numb his feelings with alcohol.

Conditions for undocumented workers like Gabby and Edwin are horrendous. Cranor’s descriptions of the production line will give you an appreciation for those who perform this physically taxing work. Anyone who complains know they can easily be replaced. Even bathroom breaks require permission from the supervisor, who rarely grants it to the Mexican American workers. The number of chickens processed within a specific timeframe takes precedence over the dignity and hygiene of the undocumented employees. Cranor’s writing will pull you into the lives of Gabby and Edwin.

Edwin cannot catch a break. He arrives at work a couple of minutes late on a day when Luke expects to learn that he is being promoted. Luke seizes the opportunity to impress some plant inspectors and fires Edwin on the spot. Edwin wants revenge and payment for the unpaid $50,000 for the overtime hours that he and Gabby have worked. His ill-conceived plan is also a challenge to the power Luke holds and results in a wild ride with many twists and turns.

While on this journey, you will encounter other themes that are important to Cranor. Motherhood, the fierce love for a child and loss all figure prominently. Both of the male characters exhibit toxic behaviour. Neither hesitates to use other people as a pawn to get what he wants. In the midst of the madness, Mimi and Gabby forge their own connection.

The action in Broiler will keep you burning though the pages to see what happens next but it is Eli Cranor’s portrayal of the haves and have nots that will remain with you long after you finish the book. It is clear that Luke’s success was built on the backs of poor immigrants. Cranor is a skilled writer with the ability to create a strong understanding of Gabby and Edwin’s lives without ever being patronising about poverty. Broiler is a perfect example of a taut thriller that also provides meaningful commentary on social justice in contemporary America, and the South in particular.

For more Southern crime fiction, see David Joy, SA Cosby and Cranor’s previous book, Ozark Dogs.

Soho Crime

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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