Hands up, I adored Hawken's brilliant Tequila Sunset (although I missed the hugely praised Dead Women of Juarez for reasons that are still unclear to me), so the moment this one came across the transom (via ebook, intended by the author to tide us over until his next book, Missing, comes out in 2014) I had to dive in. I'm a sucker, after all, for border-town stuff; that whole atmosphere of lawlessness that seems so far away from the typically civilised nature of most modern crime fiction settings.
Juarez Dance is the story of Cooper, a hit man who at first comes across more like master-thief Parker (the brilliant anti-hero from the novels by Richard Stark) than any other character I've read of late. He's cool, detached, a meticulous planner. And within about twenty pages, he's offered a job that seems too good be true and that he takes against his better judgement. This job doesn't require Cooper to remain invisible. Not only that, its scheduled to take place in the very town that he uses as his personal sanctuary,
It quickly transpires that, initial comparisons aside, Cooper's no Parker. Unlike the master-thief, Cooper's a sucker for sex, or at least one particular femme-fatale who crosses his path and makes an already complex job that much more deadly.
Hawken uses tight, deceptively simple prose to propel his story forward. Cooper is an intriguing character, and its always fun to watch a control freak character lose all power as the novel progresses. Cooper fights hard to regain control and to justify his own decisions, but in the end we know he's headed for bad places.
And bad places are what Hawken excels in describing. The dusty dry heat of a Mexican metropolis, the feeling of lawlesness in the slums and brothels, he brings all of that to bear on the reader and creates a world that feels real and terrifyingly claustrophobic. Cooper is as much a part of this setting as anything, and his engagement with the city serves to give us more of a picture of who he has been and who he wants to be and who he really is.
Juarez Dance also manages that rare trick of including tense setpieces. A gunchase around two thirds of the way through the novel, where Cooper is outnumbered and trapped behind a car with a long dash to safety is brilliantly and breathlessly handled. The hits themselves are tense and atmospheric. Hawken writes with the kind of verve that helps bring these setpieces to life in the mind of the reader.
And Hawken also deals very well with a theme I adore in crime fiction; family. Although Cooper has no family of his own to speak of, he becomes involved in a family plot that blows the roof off his organised world. Its a little perverse, and maybe a little familiar, but its effective and it helps drive the plot in a whole new direction that surprises the reader as much as Cooper.
If I have any complaints at all, its that there's a POV change that comes a little too late to gel properly in the narrative. But in fairness it is necessary to achieve that sense of closure required. Its just a little jarring when it does happen.
Which is a minor complaint, of course, when the book's so engaging and the setpieces are choreographed with such breathless verve. Hawken is one of my favourite finds of last year, and Juarez Dance is a hitman novel told with atmosphere, enthusiasm and talent: I devoured the book in a single train ride, barely pausing to look up until I was done. Bring on 2014, I say, and Hawken's next novel, Missing. In the meantime, I'm off to seek out Dead Women of Juarez and catch up on what I missed.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 04/02/13