Reaching for the Light by Sam Hawken

Very pleased to welcome Sam Hawken back to the blog. For my money, Sam Hawken is one of the most underrated authors working in crime fiction today, and it’s been my pleasure to both read and review Sam’s novels, such as The Dead Women of Juárez and Juárez Dance, as well as work with him on the Camaro Espinoza novellas (currently on hiatus). Sam’s novel Tequila Sunset, which has already had a successful run in the UK, is set for its official US release next week (though some outlets are already selling it).

Two years ago saw the US release of my debut novel, The Dead Women of Juárez. Nominated for a Crime Writers Association John Creasy New Blood Dagger — whew, that’s a long name! — it had garnered some degree of critical and commercial success in the UK, where it was first published. When it hit over here, however, it made no impact at all. Few copies were sold and fewer readers were satisfied with what they read. One memorable Goodreads review declared that the book “commits entertainment suicide” at the midpoint, when a major plot twist kicks in. Not exactly the sort of thing that breeds confidence. People didn’t like the characters, they didn’t like the setting and they weren’t all that interested in the plight of the real dead women of Juárez, the victims of what Mexicans call the feminicidios.

I wrote another Mexico-set novel after The Dead Women, this one called Tequila Sunset. It was likewise critically lauded and the Crime Writers Association again nominated it for an award, this time the far more easily named Gold Dagger. This was satisfying, as you might expect. To make matters even more gratifying, Tequila Sunset did so well in the UK that it even went bestseller. And when the book was tapped for an American release, Publishers Weekly and Booklist raved. This was a whole other level, and it got me thinking about what was so different about this book than the one that came before.

The Dead Women is essentially two interlocking stories with lead characters who are, shall we say, deeply flawed. There is very little light in the novel and it both turns and ends on bleak notes. Some got what I was going for and even liked it, but I think it’s safe to say most didn’t. Entertainment suicide, indeed.

Tequila Sunset tells three stories, so clearly I didn’t learn my lesson about keeping the cast list trim. The difference, however, has to do with the people whose stories I tell, and how I went about telling them. There’s Felipe “Flip” Morales, the young man who went to prison when a crime had deadly consequences. There’s Cristina Salas, a detective with El Paso, Texas’ gang unit, trying to balance work and home life with her autistic son. There’s Matías Segura, the federal policeman in Ciudad Juárez across the border, whose own life is slowly coming apart at the seams. None are perfect and all are beset by difficult circumstances. But why are they different?

One of the key things I learned between the writing of The Dead Women and Tequila Sunset is that black is not the only color in an author’s box of crayons. In The Dead Women my American lead, Kelly Courter, was a drug-addled loser who’d ruined at least one family’s life. My Mexican lead, Rafael Sevilla, was an old man and a drunk who had nothing to live for. Put these two together in an environment steeped in pain and loss and you have a dark, dark piece of work.

Tequila Sunset is not a sunshiny balance to The Dead Women’s gloom, but I realized in my progress as a writer that where there’s darkness there must be hope, otherwise it’s all for nothing. In this book I had chosen to depict the struggles of three people whose lives were touched by evil and death, or even drenched in it, but who retained their humanity and their wish for a better tomorrow.

Flip Morales is a convicted criminal and the member of one of the most dangerous Latino gangs in the Texas/Mexico borderland, Barrio Azteca. He’s done bad things. He will do more bad things. At the same time, he has a connection to life through his mother, who believes in him, and to the girl he meets who promises something more than drugs and murder. If I were still operating in the vein of The Dead Women, Flip would be a broken shell of a human being, incapable of ever bettering himself or his position. Now he’s a person just like you. Maybe one who’s seen and done things you’d never consider, but one who feels and lives and loves the same.

Cristina Salas has the benefit of being a cop in the safest city in the United States, but she knows that across the border people are dying in droves. Crime of unimaginable scale and cruelty washes up on the banks of the Rio Grande. She is protected from it by virtue of being an American, but only barely, and she knows things could be very different if she’d been born a mile to the south. She has the additional burden of caring for a child who, like mine, struggles with his condition and will never be freed of it. The old me would have crushed Cristina under this obligation and made her life a black hole. Now there’s an unshakable love and commitment to the future.

If there’s any character who comes close to those of The Dead Women, it’s Matías Segura, a member of the Policía Federal Ministerial, which is akin to our FBI. He’s closest to the horror of Mexico’s drug wars, presiding over the murder of countless gang members on the streets of Ciudad Juárez, called to grisly scenes where men have been burned alive in pits filled with gasoline. Mexico’s struggle is well-documented and almost unspeakably brutal. It’s hard to see beyond that to the human beings on the other side, but in Tequila Sunset we do. Matías is a devoted husband to a loving wife. Sure, they have their difficulties, but they believe in each other. In The Dead Women I might have filled their marriage with bitterness, or even outright spite. That’s absent here. There is the promise of something more.

I can’t predict with any degree of accuracy how well Tequila Sunset will do in the United States. It may turn out that readers will stay away in droves, just as they did with The Dead Women. They may fear the turn into darkness that seems almost inevitable, given the subject matter. They won’t know that there’s light to be found here, just as there’s light in the heart of everyone who chooses not to surrender. I made the decision to reach for that light instead of wallowing in the darkness and it made all the difference to me and my writing. I like to think it will do the same for those who turn the first page.

Tequila Sunset is available from Serpent’s Tail (ISBN: 978-1846688546).

Trained as an historian, Sam Hawken leans on his academic background to create books with solid connections to the real world, while also telling human stories. His mainstream publishing career began in 2011 with the publication of The Dead Women of Juárez, a crime novel that used the real-life tragedy of female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez as the stepping-off point for a story of corruption, despair and redemption. It was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasy New Blood Dagger. Hawken’s other works include Tequila Sunset, La Frontera, and Juárez Dance. To learn more about Hawken, visit his website.
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