The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken

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The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: It is claimed that since 1993, some 5000 young women have gone missing, presumed dead, in the Mexican town of Juárez. Hawken sets his novel in this world and opens a window into the violent, frightening situation and fictionalises potential perpetrators and victims. Shocking and powerful stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687730

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Although the story related here is a work of fiction, the situation is based on fact. The Mexican border city of Juárez has a shocking problem with female homicides (usually young and invariably pretty). Official statistics put the number of murders at 400 since 1993 while, we are told, residents believe that the true number of disappeared women is closer to 5000. But attention to this problem is diverted by drug crime, although the two may not be entirely unrelated. Anything that raises public awareness of this terrible situation, such as Hawken's book, is to be encouraged.

So much for the fact, what about the fiction?

If I had to use one word to sum up this book, it would be 'cinematic'. Partly, this is down to the story being told in a series of short chapters, often only four or five pages long, that gives the impression of a movie-type story. Partly too it's achieved though a lot of dialogue. It would be no surprise to me if this story were to be picked up by a Hollywood studio and it would make a decent enough action movie. There's a prime part for a beaten up American boxer, down on his luck and resorting to drug use. A part too for his beautiful Mexican girlfriend who does good work in helping the families of the missing women. And for added gratias, there's a great part for an old-school Mexican cop, close to retirement and determined to get to the bottom of the problem of the missing women (for missing, read 'presumed dead') but having to do so outside of the confines of conventional measures. And there's plenty of action scenes.

This is not tourist Mexico of 'spring break', but the poor, drug-ridden, alcohol-soaked, violent underbelly of life. A lot of the violence is graphically portrayed and quite shocking. One can only hope that if first-time Texan-author Hawken ever crossed the border to visit Juárez, that he doesn't encounter any police officer who has read his book, as they are likely to be non-too enamoured with how they are portrayed here.

It's a haunting and brutal crime novel that brings attention to an important social issue. Yet, there are one or two areas where perhaps the fact that this is his first novel shows through. Firstly, this is evident in the flow of the book. The first half is concerned with the plight of the American boxer, Kelly Courter. It's clear that there is some back story as to why he has ended up in Mexico in the first place, but when the revelation of this comes, it is rather lumped in unexceptedly at a point when the story is shifting on apace that had me wondering what was going on until it dawned on me that we had shifted back in time. The second half of the book is more concerned with the police detective, Rafael Sevilla's story and while there is some inter-relation between the two parts, it is strongly a book of two halves and a little more integration would have been welcome.

There's also a small, but significant, amount of Spanish thrown in that isn't always translated. My tourist Spanish pretty much got me through OK, but I wonder if Hawken, residing as he does in Texas, is a little more familiar with Hispanic terms than his wider audience might be. Or maybe I'm just thick!

It's good to read what is basically a crime fiction piece that has a more general readership appeal though and, providing that you are prepared for a violent and shocking time, this is a powerful book that I can recommend to you.

Out thanks to the kind people at Serpent's Tail for inviting the Bookbag to review this powerful book.

For more great American crime fiction, you might enjoy Shoedog by George Pelecanos while for a more literary Mexican-American story, the award winning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is a very different experience but a great read.

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