#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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