Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review of The Dead Women of Juarez

Debut novelist Sam Hawken's novel The Dead Women of Juarez (Serpent's Tail, 2010) is a surprisingly assured and skilled first novel. First novels are often works where you can see the seams, and watch as an writer shows hints of potential. It's a fairly rare that a first novel doesn't seem like a first novel, and Hawken's novel reads like the work of someone who's been turning out novels for a long time.

The Dead Women of Juarez starts out as the story of washed up boxer Kelly Courter, who has retreated south of the border after making some horrible decisions that torpedoed a once promising career. To get by he picks up the occasional unsanctioned fight and helps his best friend Esteban sell weed. He's also involved with Esteban's sister, Paloma, who works for Mujeres sin Voces, a group dedicated to bringing attention to the hundreds of unsolved murders of women in Juarez.

Hawken takes a rather bold turn when, halfway through the story, he has events sideline Kelly, and switches the story's focus to aging Mexican cop Rafael Sevilla, who struggles with the loss of his daughter and granddaughter, who simply went out one day and then vanished, just two more victims of the senseless crime that thrives in Mexico. While he switches characters, Hawken, doesn't switch stories, however, so the transition is smooth, and works well.

Overall, Hawken's prose is strong, the plot is well thought out, and the characters are well drawn. Kelly and Rafael both have affecting and convincing backstories, that make them seem quite human and explains their motivations. The fact that the story is inspired by the real life murders that plague Juarez (more famously the subject of Roberto Bolano's novel 2666), serves to make the novel even stronger.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lynn Kostoff Interview

Lynn Kostoff gets interviewed by South Carolina's NPR station about Late Rain. It's about time someone paid attention to this book. And if you haven't read A Choice of Nightmares, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Let's Read Grimhaven!

I've had a copy of Charles Willeford's unpublished novel Grimhaven for a while now, but I just got around to reading it recently. It is, without a doubt, one of the biggest Fuck You's that anyone has ever committed to print. It's easy to see why it never made it into proper circulation, and that is a shame. Aside from The Burnt Orange Heresy, it's probably Willeford's most harrowing work, and it has what can only be described as the most twisted happy endings in the history of literature.

Grimhaven isn't really a crime novel in the traditional sense. It bears no similarity to Miami Blues or any of the other subsequent Hoke Mosely novels where broken down old Hoke continues to be an unorthodox, false teeth wearing hero with a badge. It has more in similar with Camus' The Stranger than it does with any contemporary crime novels. That's really not a surprise, as Willeford is nothing if not the rarest of creatures: An American existentialist. Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, the smiling, reassuring God everyone is so sure has some sort of grand plan, despite the fact that there is no evidence for this ridiculous assertion.

Grimhaven finds Hoke living a simple life. He has retired from the police force, works at his father's hardware store and spends his spare time swimming and working on chess problems. He is content until his ex-wife sends his two teenage daughters to live with him while she lives it up with a black baseball player in LA. The story is really about the lengths a man will go to get back what he has lost, and Hoke is willing to go a long, long way. He doesn't want his wife back. He doesn't want his job back. He just wants to go on living as he was, alone and with time to spend working on his chess puzzles without being bothered. The way he sets about doing this is harrowing and, well, grim, but it's also brilliant. I'm reluctant to say anymore because I don't want to give away the ending to a book that many people haven't read, but let's just say the ending made me laugh even though there's nothing funny about it. Hoke, the perpetual loser, turns out to be the winner after all, even though he's the only one who will ever know.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's a New Year, and I'm back

It's 2011. The last half of 2010 found me suffering from reading, reviewing and blogging burnout. As anyone who's followed this blog knows, it's been moribund for a while now. I haven't been happy about this, but I did feel I needed the break. When a hobby starts to feel like work it's definitely time to back off for a bit. I do this for fun. I don't do it because I need another job. So, now that I've taken my break, I just want to announce that I'm bringing Independent Crime back for 2011. So, stay tuned for reviews and news about small press crime fiction. I deliberately took myself out of the loop for a while, but I'm getting back into the groove. I've got a couple novels I really want to read and review, and I'm sure I can find some new Wednesday Paperback Covers, as well as other interesting tidbits to post. Stay tuned.