Fresh Blood

Name: Sam Hawken

Title of Book: The Dead Women of Juarez

'For just over 300 pages of gripping storytelling this book quite simply doesnít put a foot wrong.'

This is a visceral crime novel based on the true story of mass murder in a Mexican border town. In the last twenty years, over 3000 women have disappeared from Ciudad Juarez, on the border between Mexico and the USA.

Woven around the horrifying murder and abduction of these women is the story of Kelly Courter, a washed up boxer from Texas. He earns his living in the boxing rings of the city acting as a stooge to the up and coming contenders. He doesnít care how badly he gets hurt, as long as he gets paid.

Courter is sucked into the underworld of organised crime and corrupt cops that flourishes in Ciudad Juarez, finding himself in way over his head. As his life spins out of control he becomes obsessed with seeking the truth about the female victims.

As a reviewer I have strange reading habits. It is not unusual that a pile of books arrive at the same time and I dip in and out of each of them until one pushes itself from the 'To Be Read' pile onto the 'Must Read Now' section. The Dead Women of Juarez circumvented this process by grabbing my attention from the very first line.

This is a remarkable debut novel that heralds an exciting new talent to hit the crime writing scene. For just over 300 pages of gripping storytelling this book quite simply doesnít put a foot wrong.

The two leads; Kelly the boxer and Sevilla, the emotionally battered old cop are hugely sympathetic and draw the reader into the tale effortlessly. They each have their own personal tragedy they wear like a cloak, but Hawken being the talented storyteller he is doesnít give us all of the relevant information up front. Instead he allows this to inform the characters actions and motivations while doling out portions of the truth like a miser with his coin.

The real-life victims of the crimes that pervade this city are in the background, their tragedy highlighted by the simple but effective ploy of showing the effect that their deaths have had on the people left behind. Time and again we see them draped in black, crushed under the weight of their grief: a much more effective device than a passage of torture.

In 2010 Stuart Nevilleís Twelve (The Ghosts of Belfast) grabbed all of the attention and most of the awards. If I were a betting man Iíd be looking for the odds of Sam Hawken hitting the same heights in 2011.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
Iím not sure how I would classify my writing. I write more toward the literary side of things, but without the stylistic fillips that one usually finds in that sort of writing. I definitely donít write hard-boiled fiction. I actually try to avoid ďstyleĒ altogether when Iím writing and try for straightforward, unsullied prose that can be read clearly. Which itself makes a certain kind of style, I suppose.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I donít read much contemporary crime fiction, and shy away from series. My involvement in the genre runs toward the classic authors, like Thompson and Stark and Chandler and Hammett. Which isnít to say that there arenít good crime novels being written anymore, because there are, but I just donít connect with them the same way I do with the older stuff.
3) Your subject matter is harrowing; all the more for the fact it is based on truth. When did you first realise you were going to write about this?
Originally The Dead Women of JuŠrez was going to be a boxing noir set in Mexico, but I found that the story didnít have the kind of narrative push that would make it a worthwhile read. Consequently I started looking at problems endemic to Mexico that would make for good storytelling. Amnesty International (USA) had started a campaign to end the violence against women in JuŠrez and this situation resonated with me. Figuring out how to bend my initial concept to fit was more of a challenge than I expected, but I think it turned out all right.
4) Writing about such a subject and pulling it off so well in a first novel is quite an achievement. Did you ever worry you had (pardon the clichť) bitten off more than you could chew?
I actually wrote the second half of the book twice. The first draft wasnít up to snuff and I set aside the manuscript for months thinking Iíd never get it right, but eventually I had some fresh ideas that got me going again. It helped that the nonfiction book, The Daughters of JuŠrez, came out right about the same time I restarted the second half and it was such an excellent exposť of the situation that I knew I was on the right track and telling the right story.
5) The boxing scenes rang out as if they had been written by someone who had spent a good deal of time between the ropes. Do you/ have you boxed?
I have noodled around with boxing once or twice, but never in a serious way. Mostly I just love good fight stories, such as those written by Robert E. Howard and F.X. Toole. Plus, you donít read a lot of issues of Ring magazine without picking up a few things. And studying fights closely teaches you a lot about how fighters move and think.
6) Did you consider writing about this subject in any other genre?
Not really. As I say, I was already set on writing a borderland noir when I happened upon the feminicidios and the two fit together particularly well. Iím not sure thereís a way to write about the dead women of JuŠrez that isnít noir in some fashion; itís just too horrible for any other genre.
7) Do you carefully work out your plot or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I outline like nobodyís business. My outlines are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000-10,000 words and are plotted out to the nth degree. Iím extremely cognizant of word count and how that relates to pacing, so the process behind the page is highly mechanical. Thereís no room in my work for improvisation. Once Iíve plotted, Iíve already told my story, so all thatís left is to tell the story again, just with more detail.
8) What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
From Hemingwayís A Movable Feast: "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."
9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
Iím not sure who Iíd cast as Kelly, but I would very much like to see Giancarlo Giannini play Sevilla. Heíd be perfect for the part, and when I wrote the book I had Gianniniís voice and manner in mind whenever Sevilla did anything.
10) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I still think Michael Crichtonís Rising Sun is one of the best thriller novels ever written. The story wiggles around so much in that one that itís like trying to get hold of a downed power line, and a big reveal about two-thirds of the way in really shifts gears in a novel fashion. Forget the movie version (though Sean Connery is predictably great) and stick with the book.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
I have a fondness for The Hot Spot, which adapted the novel, Hell Hath No Fury, by Charles Williams. Iíd love to write something so spare and uncompromising. The book is good, too, and unabashedly hard-boiled.
12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Iím a fan of reading and I cross genres quite a bit in my quest for good stories. I sort of happened into crime fiction after spending a lot of time writing and reading westerns, so Iím not sure itíd be accurate to call myself a crime writer or even a crime reader. I do write about crime and I do read about crime, but I donít stay still for very long. After The Dead Women of JuŠrez I wrote another crime novel, but then I wrote a horror novel. Right now Iím working on a straightforward literary tale about illegal immigration across the US/Mexico border. The stack of books by my bed include a Star Wars novel, a horror novel and a nonfiction examination of the drug war in Ciudad JuŠrez. Iím kind of all over the place.

As far as authors go, I mentioned a few at the top that generally never fail to satisfy. Among contemporary authors I have a great deal of respect for Dave Zeltserman, who actually helped bring The Dead Women to Serpentís Tail, where it was eventually published. Dave writes consistently good stuff at a breakneck pace. I only wish I could match his prolificacy and his skills.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
Iím torn. Iíve read a lot of really great crime fiction over the years, to the point where itíd be tough to single out just one. I guess something like The Hunter (Richard Stark) would rate highly, or even from-left-field selections like Fletch or Confess, Fletch, by Gregory McDonald, which are more detective novels than crime novels. Hell Hath No Fury, which I mentioned before, is a strong contender. In the end I may just have to cop out and say I canít make up my mind.