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Find more A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Border Noir
“And so a torturous, round-about refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait and wait and wait.”
Those words, of course, are from the opening voiceover to Casablanca, and they capture the desperation of thousands of WWII refugees, adrift in a war-torn world, willing to do anything to get from the horror of here to the potential salvation of there. Borders and the immigrant journeys they alternately impede and permit are enduring, even archetypal, themes in literature, but in crime fiction they are also breeding grounds for noir. Where desperate people gather, corruption flourishes, and with corruption comes an atmosphere of menace. When the unscrupulous meet the desperate, violence erupts, leaving broken lives in its wake. Even those who temporarily avoid the maelstrom are left, like the refugees in Casablanca, to wait, trapped in the transitional netherworld that is the border town.
In contemporary crime fiction, border noir typically finds its home along the demilitarized zone separating the U.S. and Mexico, the jumping-off point for illegal immigrants desperate to move north, as well as the conduit for the flow of drugs and guns across the border (guns moving south, drugs moving north). Novels set on our southern border—typically in El Paso and Juárez, or San Diego and Tijuana—have flourished in the last several decades, reflecting both our ongoing battles over immigration policy and our so-often catastrophic war on drugs. The novels listed below reflect those sociopolitical issues, to be sure, but their emotional core goes deeper than that, to border culture itself, wherever those borders may be, and to the timeless chaos of lives in transition or, worse, suspended in the perpetually deferred dream of transition.
Several of these border novels are technically out of print, but all are readily available in print or as e-books from various online sources.
The U.S.-Mexico Border
Angel Baby. By Richard Lange. 2013. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $25.99 (9780316219822).
Luz shoots her way out of her drug-lord husband’s Tijuana compound, but she still needs help to get across the border if she is to rejoin her daughter, hidden in L.A. Enter Malone, a gone-to-seed surfer with a tragic past. On their tail is another odd couple with their own agendas, reluctant enforcer Jeronimo and bent border agent Thacker. Hope and regret tangle at every turn in this emotionally charged thriller about our desperate need to reach a safe haven.
The Border Lords. By T. Jefferson Parker. 2011. NAL, $15 (9780451235565).
This is the fourth in Parker’s acclaimed Charlie Hood series, about an L.A. cop obsessed with controlling the gun and drug traffic across the border. This time trouble comes as much from within as from the dealers he hunts: one of his team has gone AWOL, and another is focused on becoming a media star. Throughout this series, the border culture itself, rife with corruption and violence, is Charlie’s main adversary.
Borderline. By Lawrence Block. 2014. Hard Case Crime, $23.95 (9781783290574).
This early Block novel from 1958, which gleefully mixes soft-core porn with a thriller plot, makes the most of its seedy border-town setting, jumping between El Paso and Juárez, as the paths of a gambler, divorcée, hitchhiker, stripper, and psycho killer come together in an inevitable bloodbath—but not before a series of steamy yet surprisingly stylish couplings. Lurking behind it all is the chimerical dream of carving a new beginning out of the transitional borderline world in which the characters find themselves.
Choke Point. By James C. Mitchell. 2004. Minotaur, o.p.
Brinker, a former border-patrol agent turned PI, is reluctant to chase leads to Mexico, where an earlier tragedy altered his life forever. But when a newspaper reporter he refused to help is killed south of the border, he overcomes his fears and follows the trail to local maquilas, which employ cheap Mexican labor to package drugs for international distribution. Equal parts classic PI novel, social critique, and psychological thriller.
A Death in Mexico. By Jonathan Woods. 2012. New Pulp, $15 (9780982843680).
In San Miguel de Allende, Inspector Hector Diaz investigates the murder of an American artist’s model, whose mutilated body was dumped in a public square. Though not set on the border, this uncompromising look at racial tensions in a small Mexican town perfectly reflects the mood of border noir. Gritty to the point you want to wash your hands, the novel takes us deep into a world of darkness, capturing that same blend of bleakness and all-consuming corruption that drives Orson Welles’ classic film A Touch of Evil.
Death of an Evangelista. By Allana Martin. 1999. St. Martin’s, o.p.
Texana Jones is the operator of a trading post in Presidio County, Texas, on the shores of the Rio Grande. This episode, the third in the series, begins with a simple journey across the border for a dental appointment, but after finding a dead man in the taxi she enters for the trip home, Texana becomes immersed in a long-simmering conflict that is both racial and religious. Border tensions are about more than drugs, as this sensitive human drama makes abundantly clear.
Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders. By Alicia Gaspar de Alba. 2005. Arte Publico, $16.95 (9781558855083).
College professor Ivon Villa and her partner, Brigit, adopt the baby of a Juárez woman. Ivon returns to her hometown of El Paso, on her way to pick up the baby, when she learns that the bodies of 100 women have been found outside Juárez. This horrific crime wave hits home when Ivon learns that the mother of her soon-to-be adopted baby is one of the victims and Ivon’s sister has gone missing in Juárez. Gaspar de Alba tackles prejudice in multiple forms: against gays, against Hispanics, and against the poor.
Día de los Muertos. By Kent Harrington. 1997. Capra, o.p.
Tijuana is the ultimate border town, where sin, corruption, and decadence have their way with all comers. Set appropriately during Mexico’s Día de los Muertos celebration, this novel takes us on a literal and metaphorical death march, as rogue DEA agent Vincent Calhoun and a motley crew of lost souls trapped in his orbit watch their lives spiral out of control. Harrington hits every note perfectly, from the blood-spurting eruptions of violence, to the dim chance of escape that keeps us hoping, and, above all, to the soul-deadening rot that hangs over the Tijuana landscape like tequila-soaked acid rain.
Do They Know I’m Running? By David Corbett. 2010. Ballantine, o.p.
Eighteen-year-old Roque Montalvo travels from California to El Salvador to help his uncle reenter the U.S. illegally. Matters are complicated further when Roque learns that he must also escort a mysterious Palestinian and a young Salvadoran woman across the border. This is both a gripping chase thriller and a sensitive exploration of the immigrant’s journey from one kind of peril in their home countries to another in the U.S.
Dove Season. By Johnny Shaw. 2011. AmazonEncore, $13.95 (9781935597643).
In this first of Shaw’s Jimmy Veeder comic mystery series, Jimmy returns to his hometown of Calexico, near the border in Southern California’s Imperial Valley. He’s there to visit his dying father, who has an unusual request, which leads in caterwauling fashion to Jimmy and his running buddies staging a sort of assault on a castle in the sand, south of the border, which serves as a halfway house for transporting illegal immigrants. It’s a peculiar yet riotous mix of thrills and comedy, but amid the bloody high jinks, there is something quite powerful here, a bit like The Magnificent Seven but goofier.
La Mordida. By Jim Sanderson. 2002. Univ. of New Mexico, o.p.
Newly promoted border agent Dolph Martinez is working with a special task force operating on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. When Martinez discovers that he may have been an unwitting pawn in a plot to eliminate a small-time crook, he starts digging and finds a corruption-coated scam that crosses the Rio Grande. This is a solid mystery starring an intriguing bicultural cop with a degree in history who recognizes the polarities that define both his personal life and his job.
The Perpetrators. By Gary Phillips. 2002. Uglytown, o.p.
Marley is an expeditor: he moves stuff—people, if need be—from one location to another. This time he has 24 hours to move Lina Guzman, heiress to a Mexican drug fortune, from Tijuana into the U.S. What should be a cruise-control Sunday drive turns into a NASCAR-meets-the-WWF spectacle. Subtle explorations of border culture aren’t Phillips’ thing, but, boy, does he know how to kick a thriller into overdrive. This is no-frills excitement for those who like their crime novels brimming with action and scented with cordite.
The Power of the Dog. By Don Winslow. 2005. Vintage, $15.95 (9781400096930).
On his first posting to Culiacan, Mexico, DEA agent Art Keller makes the fatal mistake of befriending the Barrera brothers and inadvertently launching a personal vendetta of epic proportions. In a crime novel with breakneck pacing, a sardonic worldview, and a cast of superheated characters, Winslow feverishly indicts the U.S. war on drugs and shows the border to be a pipeline rather than a barrier to the unimpeded flow of narcotics.
Rain Dogs. By Baron R. Birtcher. 2013. Permanent Press, $29 (9781579623180).
It’s 1976, and Colt Freeland, a laid-back Vietnam vet interested only in running his small pot business in the forests of Northern California, suddenly and violently finds himself thrown into the cocaine-fueled drug wars raging on the Mexican-American border. Birtcher combines a gritty, action-filled thriller with a nuanced, almost contemplative character drama in which Colt and a well-drawn supporting cast attempt to make sense of their places in a run-amok world.
Redback. By Kirk Russell. 2011. Severn, $28.95 (9780727869654).
After a disaster in which one of his DEA colleagues is killed, agent John Martinez is fired for “renegade behavior.” Nearly 20 years later, Martinez gets the chance to settle scores with the Mexican cartel lord behind the shooting that cost Martinez his career and his friend his life. Like Gary Phillips, Russell knows how to craft an action-driven thriller and give a larger-than-life hero room to run.
The Rules of Wolfe. By James Carlos Blake. 2013. Mysterious, $24 (9780802121295).
The Wolfes are a family of criminals—mostly they do cross-border smuggling, but they stay away from drugs and people as cargo. The clan survives by following rules, but young Eddie is a rule-breaker, and it lands him in Mexico, in service to a drug cartel. His perilous journey to cross the border is different from that of illegal immigrants but no less potentially deadly. The nearer Eddie gets to escaping, the agonizingly farther away he seems to be. A hell of a ride, made all the more enjoyable by Blake’s straight-ahead, forceful prose.
Taken. By Robert Crais. 2012. Putnam, $26.95 (9790399158278).
Krista Morales and her boyfriend have disappeared, inadvertently abducted by bajadores, bandits who capture and then sell illegals as they cross the border from Mexico. Krista’s mother, once an illegal herself, hires L.A. PI Elvis Cole to track her daughter; Elvis quickly determines what happened but just as quickly becomes a hostage himself. The task of finding and rescuing him is left to Elvis’ ruthless running buddy, Joe Pike. Crais’ novel puts a very human face on the desperation of illegal immigrants, at the prey of not only governments but also outlaws.
Tequila Sunset. By Sam Hawken. 2014. Serpent’s Tail, $14.95 (9781846688546).
A simple bridge separates El Paso, among the safest cities in the U.S. (thanks to the multiple law-enforcement agencies there), and Juárez, considered by many to be the most dangerous city in the world. Hawken’s novel follows the lives of three people—an ex-con and reluctant gang member, an El Paso cop, and a Mexican federal agent—caught in the crossfire between gangs operating on both sides of the border. Emotionally wrenching and unsparingly realistic.
Tijuana Straits. By Kem Nunn. 2004. Scribner, $16 (9780743279826).
Feminist and environmental activist Magdalena, victim of a vicious attack by thugs, is washed ashore at the borderlands, where California and Mexico meet the Pacific. She is rescued by Fahey, an ex-con and surfer turned worm farmer who reluctantly becomes involved in Magdalena’s efforts to fight for the rights of Mexican peasants exploited in foreign-owned factories. Cult favorite Nunn’s outrage over the mistreatment of the laborers comes shining through in this somber but gripping thriller.
Triple Crossing. By Sebastian Rotella. 2011. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $14.99 (9780316105224).
Reporter Rotella plunges readers into the surreal three-ring circus along the border between Tijuana and San Diego, where a young and skeptical Chicago-born, Italian Mexican border agent finds himself “triple-crossing” foes and corrupt allies alike. A strongly detailed and sharply funny tale of cultural complexity and raging global criminality.
Wahoo Rhapsody. By Shaun Morley. 2011. AmazonEncore, $13.95 (9781935597872).
Take a break from the sometimes unrelieved darkness of border noir with this wild comic caper novel set on a sand-dune island off the coast of Baja, California. The island is home to Atticus Fish, a retired lawyer who once sued God in a class-action suit—and won! Atticus comes to the aid of the skipper of the Wahoo Rhapsody, whose first mate is smuggling marijuana planted in the bellies of freshly caught tuna. Various dealers, bent prosecutors, and addled tourists get in the way of Atticus’ elaborate plan to dump the drugs, save the boat, and return to his casually hedonistic life.
Wrecked. By Tricia Fields. 2014. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $25.99 (9781250021373).
When Artemis, Texas, police chief Josie Gray’s lover disappears, Josie discovers he’s been kidnapped by the Medrano cartel and sets about getting him back. Fields’ third, emotionally taut Josie Gray novel builds to a breathtaking climax, portraying, in the process, the danger inherent in every border town. Fine southwestern crime fiction by an author who clearly loves her locale.
The U.S.-Canadian Border
Border Songs. By Jim Lynch. 2009. Vintage, $15 (9780307456267).
The border between Washington State and British Columbia is very different from that between, say, California and Mexico. In some places, it’s virtually invisible, with only a small ditch separating the two countries. Today, however, that porous border has become a thoroughfare for pot smugglers and, potentially, terrorists. Lynch’s lyrical tale—not a crime novel, really, but certainly a meditation on borders—focuses not on the global implications of the border traffic but on the effect it has on the inhabitants of the sleepy communities lining the ditch, in particular, a dyslexic border-patrol agent and his childhood friend on the Canada side, now a marijuana grower. An endearingly idiosyncratic, almost Capraesque novel.
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