“Ripped from today’s headlines—” back in the day, this was the phrase advertisers would use for a book or a movie dramatizing some contemporary issue of note. “Ripped from today’s headlines” is the perfect epithet to describe El Gavilan, the latest thriller from Edgar award nominee Craig McDonald. Weaving his tale of rape and murder in the small Ohio town of New Austin about the controversial issue of illegal immigration, McDonald manages to shine a light on both the plight of illegals trying to make a better life for themselves and nativist Americans fearful of their intrusion.
Tell Lyon, an ex-border agent whose family has been slaughtered by a Mexican drug cartel, has come to New Austin to take over as the new chief of police. There he meets several of the local sheriffs from the surrounding counties. One of whom is Able Hawk, the El Gavilan of the title, who has been making it his business to rid the area of any illegal immigrant he can get his hands on, often questionable at best, he is nonetheless treated sympathetically. Walt Pierce, another of the sheriffs, is less interested in illegal immigration than he is zealous about defending his territory from intrusion by any other authority. When a Mexican waitress who is a friend of Hawk’s is found raped and murdered on a ball field bordering all three of their jurisdictions, it starts a chain of events that turns what should have been a sleepy Ohio town into a battlefield.
Add to this a love at first sight affair between Lyon and a local Mexican-American beauty, an irritated tantrum by her ex-boyfriend, a not-so-friendly competition between the different police forces to solve the murder, a variety of vicious attacks and beatings and you’ve got the makings of a page-turner. McDonald has the formula down pat: short chapters moving back and forth between characters with just enough information to whet the reader’s appetite for more. A little sex, a little violence — what more could a thriller reader want? He even manages to intersperse short chapters detailing some of what happened to Lyon and his family back when he was serving as a border agent. And if he telegraphs the ending fairly early on, it isn’t as if he were trying to keep it hidden for some grand revelation. El Gavilan is not really a “who done it.” It is less about who alone did it, than it is a matter of how to deal with a number of different “who’s” involved.
Moreover, he creates some really interesting characters. Beginning with Able Hawk, himself, a man who abounds in contradictions — on the one hand he is willing to play all kinds of games with the law to deal with illegals while at the same time filled with kindness for individuals. There is the self-centered ex-boyfriend who works as a reporter for the local paper. There is the heroic Tell Lyon who is not above taking the law into his own hands to serve his own idea of justice. At his best, McDonald creates characters who mirror the contradictions inherent in mere mortals. He doesn’t create perfect beings; these are human beings with human flaws.
While there is no question McDonald knows how to tell a story, every so often I had a problem with his prose, especially his dialogue. Too often dialogue would seem clunky, overly formal for the situation. Sometimes characters would come off as pretentious, not often, but often enough to be disconcerting. It is not that McDonald can’t write natural dialogue. He manages just fine for most of the novel, but that only seems to magnify the passages which could use some editing.