An Action Figure in the Shape of a Woman by Sam Hawken
For the most part public criticism of my writing slides right off. I don’t read my reviews unless someone points out a specific one I should read, and I take any negative feedback I get via social media with a grain of salt. On the Internet everyone has an axe to grind, so I figure I might as well let them get on with it on their own time. I have writing to do.
Thankfully most of the reviews I get are positive — or so they tell me, anyway — but the few negatives passed on to me have a monotonous familiarity, which lets me know there’s a portion of the professional reviewing class who simply don’t get what I do. That’s especially true when it comes to Camaro Espinoza.
For those who don’t know me, a quick recap: I came onto the scene in 2006 with well-received short crime fiction, and parleyed that early success into a string of critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling crime novels collectively known as The Borderland Trilogy. The three books in that set received four CWA Dagger nominations, and while they were narrowly beat out every time, I was joined in defeat by such big names as Don Winslow, Stephen King and JK Rowling. Not bad company to keep.
And so I stayed in the “Mexican crime” subgenre for a long while, until I realized I had other stories to tell. Specifically I had stories to tell about a woman named Camaro Espinoza, a veteran of two wars; an introverted, damaged woman; a heroine who dispensed with the traditional traits of feminine protagonists and went directly for the boy’s side of the playground.
I’d like to say she was an immediate hit when I released the first four novellas telling her story in the summer of 2013, but readers were slow to warm to her. Over time, though, they did. And then Mulholland Books eventually bought a trio of Camaro novels from me. The second of these, Walk Away, is due out January 31, 2017. The third will follow in 2018.
I’m happy to say readers like Camaro’s new adventures as much as they liked the older ones. I may not read reviews, but I can easily glance at an average star rating. It seemed people were ready for a woman like Camaro. She’s not friendly, or bouncy or traditionally feminine. She’s not a girly-girl. But she is a woman, with all the complications and contradictions of a living, breathing person with ambitions outside the constraints of her gender. Like I say, readers get that and they get it good. Professional reviewers… not so much.
Mulholland passes trade, newspaper and magazine reviews to me, whether positive or negative. Most are positive, which is always nice, but those that are negative aren’t negative in a reasoned way, but rather seem to react poorly to the exact elements which make Camaro who Camaro is. One reviewer, for the New York Times, referred to her as, “an action figure in the shape of a woman.” Because apparently this reviewer, a woman herself, could not wrap her brain around the concept of an action heroine. I guess she never saw Aliens?
This trend continues. It’s not that the books are poorly written, they say. It’s not that the plots are threadbare, they say. It’s just Camaro… what’s she all about?
The idea of a woman occupying a role traditionally occupied by men shouldn’t be a hard sell in 2016, and yet here we are. When thinking about the Times review, I considered that the reviewer, if presented with a male protagonist named Cameron, with all the other elements of Camaro’s character intact, would probably not have batted an eye. Camaro’s behavior in the first book, The Night Charter, would make total sense in the context of manly men doing man stuff, because that’s men. Women don’t act that… do they?
As I say, Camaro fought in two wars. She spent four years of her life in combat zones. She’s seen death and suffering firsthand. She nearly died in a battle where she earned the Silver Star after repeatedly exposing herself to fire to treat soldiers as a combat medic, and eventually dragged a wounded man 100 yards while badly wounded herself. And we’ve learned over time that her life before the Army wasn’t exactly full of happiness and light, either. She lost her mother when she was seven years old. She lived in a poor household in East Los Angeles, constantly feeling as though she had to fulfill her father’s dreams. And when she got out of the service after some nameless, terrible thing happened — we still don’t know what — she was plunged into a chaos of violence from which she is perfectly suited by temperament and skill, but which she wants desperately to escape.
This is not a woman defined by the traditional feminine concepts of Madonna/whore. She’s not interested in being a mother, so there goes that hoary old motivation. She isn’t looking for love, as far as we can tell, and when she looks for sex it’s for her own gratification, not her partner’s. Looked at through the lens of hundreds of years of feminine heroes, who is this woman? It’s almost like she has a life and mind of her own, free from society’s expectations! Can’t have that.
From time to time I’ll get a reader of my Mexico novels who asks why I don’t write Mexican crime anymore. I always tell them I’ll write more crime someday, but right now I’m caught up with this wonderfully complex character, and I don’t want to leave her side just yet. A character like Camaro can have countless stories told about her, because a layer is always being peeled back to expose another layer. She’s as real as any character I’ve ever written about. Only she’s a woman making her own way in a world which, for better or ill, has proscribed women’s roles according to men’s demands. That makes her different, yes, but also fascinating. She’s not an action figure in the shape of a woman. She’s an action hero who happens to be a woman, and there’s a difference.