#17 Sam Hawken / The Dead Women of Juárez

Sam Hawken, The Dead Women of Juárez (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011). An outstanding crime novel set in the corrupt Mexican border city of Juárez, infamous for its high rate of ‘feminicidios’ (female homicides)  5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Roger Kahn wrote, ‘Boxing is smoky halls and kidneys battered until they bleed,” but in Mexico everything bled in the ring.

The Dead Women of Juárez is one of those crime novels that transcends genre and can be thought of, quite simply, as an excellent piece of writing. Set in the Mexican border city of Juárez, just across from El Paso, Texas, it draws on the legacy of American writers such as Hemingway to explore in succinct, precise, but highly evocative language the brutalising nature of life in Juárez, and the violence and corruption that pervade its politics and policing.

Ciudad Juárez is arguably the perfect place to set a crime novel, given its dubious real-life distinction of being the murder capital of the world. But Hawken chooses to focus on one specific group of the city’s murder victims, namely the 400 women killed there since 1993, and the estimated 3000 (that’s three thousand) women who have simply disappeared and are presumed dead – the victims of sexual attacks and ‘femicide’.

The novel explores the abject failure of the authorities to deal with the feminicidios, and the toll that the murders take on the women’s families, from the perspective of two highly damaged individuals: Kelly Courter, a washed-up American boxer reduced to the role of punchbag for talented younger fighters in the ring, and Raphael Sevilla, a narcotics investigator jaded from his many years on the police-force, who is hiding a serious drink problem. The link between the two is Paloma Esteban, Courter’s on-off girlfriend, the sister of a local drug dealer Sevilla is trying to nail, and a campaigner for the group Mujeres Sin Voces (Mothers without Voices), which seeks justicia (justice) for Juárez’s victims of femicide. When yet another woman goes missing, Courter and Sevilla find themselves drawn into an investigation that will radically change both of their lives.

As well as being a hard-hitting crime novel, and a scathing critique of power, corruption and misogyny, The Dead Women of Juárez offers readers an eye-opening depiction of contemporary Mexican society, whose impoverished majority endure punishing and poorly-paid working conditions in the maquiladoras – factories that turn out consumer goods for American companies. While only a stone’s throw away from America, the workers of Juárez may as well inhabit a different planet, given the disjunction between their lives and those of more affluent U.S. citizens living a few miles away. On another level, the novel also functions as a study of failed masculinity, through the symbolic figure of the boxer who undergoes a series of highly bruising rounds with life. The characterisation of Courter is superb, as is that of Sevilla, and the novel is worth reading for these two nuanced and very human portraits alone.

I especially like the way this book openly identifies itself as a campaigning crime novel (one of its key sources is Teresa Rodriguez’s journalistic study The Daughters of Juarez). In his afterword, Hawken states that his aim was to ‘shine a light on these femicides’ and the state’s failure to respond adequately to the epidemic of violence against women. Only a handful of cases have ever reached court, which is extraordinary given the scale of the murders and disappearances. (Imagine for a second how we would feel if the same were happening in the British city of Birmingham, which like Juárez has a population of around one million people…). An additional problem is that the murders have been overshadowed by the drug wars in the area, in spite of the work carried out by Amnesty International  and women’s groups such as Voces sin Echo (Voices without an Echo) and Las Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black). Hawken emphasises the importances of securing justice for the women before the law (providing an interesting contrast to the way that justice is depicted in the narrative), and his novel is a great example of how the crime genre can be harnessed to raise awareness of real crimes and miscarriages of justice.

The Dead Women of Juárez was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2011, which means that this highly accomplished piece of work is – remarkably – Sam Hawken’s debut novel. Beautifully written and with a tremendous sense of place, it stands head and shoulders above many others in its field. Along with Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, it is one of my stand-out crime novels of the year.

Mrs Peabody awards The Dead Women of Juárez a superlative 5 stars.

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17 thoughts on “#17 Sam Hawken / The Dead Women of Juárez

  1. This sounds like such a good book for the many reasons you describe above. I have known about the feminicides in Juarez for quite awhile. Friends of mine follow this closely, and it’s been addressed by many women’s groups in Latin America and here. The murders and the exploitation of workers in the maquilladores are very disturbing, yet real.
    I don’t know if I want to read this — because it sounds so good. It’s something I think about.
    I’ll see if I can come up with the courage to read it.

    • Thank you for your comments, Kathy. I remember hearing about the murders a long time ago, but only in vague terms – they would understandably have been given more attention in the US due to the proximity of Mexico than here. Until I read the book, and then did a little research on the web, I had no idea of the scale of the problem, or just how little was being done to stop more disappearances and murders taking place.

      The novel isn’t the easiest read, and I think one needs to be in the right frame of mind to approach this kind of hard-hitting subject matter, but that having been said, I would still very much recommend. I think the novel does a great job in terms of raising awareness of the femicides, which is extremely laudable.

  2. Oddly, I didn’t find the novel as immersive and emotionally engaging in its theme as you, Mrs P. Neither did I find it structurally engaging. This has led me to wonder if those who rate the novel very highly are slightly blinkered by its worthy theme, although you argue its case extremely well here. Not saying this to be controversial by the way, I just don’t understand the very high praise this novel has garnered in certain quarters.

    • This novel does seem to garner very different responses and I can’t adequately figure out why this is the case. One reason might be the narrative’s pace: it does take some time to get going (the first section is largely a character study of Coulter)… Hmmm.

      From my point of view, the novel definitely stood out in terms of its quality, rather than the intrinsic worthiness of its topic. I was also completely gripped. I read it on a long train journey and could barely rip myself away for a cup of tea. The last time I had a similar experience was reading George Pelecanos’ The Big Blowdown on the train back from the Harrogate Crime Festival a few years ago.

      If anyone else has read it, do pitch in!

  3. Someone on Twitter raised the issue of violence in the novel. Readers should be aware that the novel is pretty grown-up and hard-hitting: there are indeed some graphic depictions of violence. In my view, however, these aren’t gratuitous or salacious – they fit the style and gritty mood of the novel, rather than being shoe-horned into the narrative needlessly.

  4. This is a very good review. I still haven’t quite made up my mind whether or not to read it (I’ve seen a mix of reviews) but it’s always good to get another perspective. I know I’m not in the mood right now as I go into wind-down-mode for end of year but I am drawn to books that tackle difficult subjects which need to be addressed from as many angles as possible – news / enterntainment etc.

    • Thank you, Bernadette. I know exactly what you mean about needing to be in a suitable mood to approach difficult texts. This one was on my list for quite a time until the right reading moment came along.

  5. The violence probably reflects the actual violence that does go on with women being murdered and beaten up.
    A reason that the femicide issue comes up in the U.S. is also because there are U.S. corporations in Mexico where women workers are paid very little and work under terrible conditions, including facing sexual harassment and abuse.
    I’ll see what I can read.

    • Thanks, Kathy. Yes, I think that’s right, although the vast majority of the ‘live’ violence (as opposed to reported violence) in the novel is visited on the male investigators. And interestingly, there is less graphic/sexual violence than in some mainstream crime, such as the Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

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  7. Hi Mrs Peabody, I just finished this book, having picked it up because of your review of it. I found it really excellent – I totally agree that it is the sort of crime novel that transcends the genre, the writing is so good. I thought Kelly and Sevilla were very interesting, rounded out characters and I liked their flaws, particularly Kelly’s, his flaws actually gave him more humanity. I did not find the plot slow, I found it gripping, the pace was helped by the short chapters, I can see this as a film. I did find the violence in the book really upsetting ( I was reminded of the God of Small Things). But I don’t consider the violence as gratuitous because it seems that violence plays a big part in real life in Juarez, not only as regards the women victims but also as regards the way the police treat suspects. Anyway, thanks so much for putting me onto this book. I have now started Needle in a Haystack – you have whetted my appetite for crime thrillers of quality. I will report back! Kind Regards Blighty

    • Thanks, Blighty. I’m so glad to hear that you liked this novel. It’s a hard-hitting read, but so very well done, and I agree that the violence is handled appropriately without seeming gratuitous. It remains one of my absolute top reads – as does the Mallo. Look forward to your views on that one at some point too. There’s some really outstanding crime fiction out there…

      • Your blog has really upped the quality of my crime fiction reading. I read the Juarez book right after reading the latest Agatha Raisin – what a contrast!!! Mind you, read an interview with MC Beaton in the books section of The Telegraph on-line yesterday where she is quoted as saying if anyone dares describe her books as cosy she will give them a Glasgow kiss, so perhaps she has more in common with the hard boiled genre than I thought! Am now worried, as think I did indeed refer to the Agatha Raisin book as a cosy read on my Pinterest…gulp! There’s no way she can track me down through Pinterest is there???

      • Thanks, Blighty – that’s a lovely thing to hear 🙂

        I always see crime fiction is a very broad church, with room for all manner of different subgenres and styles … as long as they’re well done. And I certainly like to take a break from the harder-hitting examples of the genre every now and then too. But as far as the blog is concerned I do like to showcase ground-breaking crime, or crime that grapples with really challenging issues, like Hawken’s Juarez. Crime fiction is ideally placed to examine criminality, corruption and justice, and I like it when crime writers push the boundaries of the genre to explore difficult historical legacies in particular (like Mallo).

        As to whether MC Beaton will be able to track you down…I don’t *think* so, but it might be best to secure all the doors for a while 😉

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