Book Review: Missing

The kidnapping of his stepdaughter in Mexico sends Jack Searle across the border to get her back



by Sam Hawken
Serpent's Tail, 384 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Jack Searle is the protagonist – "hero" might be too straightforward a term – of Missing, the new border crime novel by Sam Hawken. A 57-year-old widower in Laredo, Jack is trying to make ends meet as a contractor while raising his teenage stepdaughters. He drives a battered Ford F-250, watches his cholesterol, occasionally downs his first beer of the evening before shutting the fridge door, and dyes the errant gray whiskers in his goatee black. He's a white guy who married a Mexican national, Vilma, who died of cancer. The daughters were hers from a previous marriage. We meet Jack the morning after a night of rotten sleep – though we never learn if it's because of encroaching middle age, continuing grief over the loss of Vilma, or a combination of assorted blues. His first stop of the day is Home Depot, where he hires a Mexican immigrant named Eugenio as a helper for $8 an hour. After a dusty, labor-intensive eight hours, he tells Eugenio, "You do good work," and gives him an extra $6, as if that's a lot of money.

Jack is solid, not brilliant, and as badly as he aches inside and out, not wholly sympathetic. When his daughter Marina and her cousin are kidnapped leaving a concert in Nuevo Laredo, Jack storms across the border with his pistol, determined to get the girls back, to hell with anyone who says "Be reasonable ... be patient ... we're doing all we can right now ... you are endangering everyone by your rash, unthinking, Ugly American actions and words." Actually, I made up that last one. If you're looking for topical matter for an old-time country & western song, give Jack a look.

For my money, the more interesting figure here is Gonzalo Soler, a lowly inspector for Nuevo Laredo's municipal police. A cipher of a public servant, Soler lives in squalor, working heroically within the system, in a country broken by dysfunction, drug lords, and the idiotic American drug wars. When the Mexican military disbands the local police department and Soler is relieved of duty, all hope for getting the girls back appears lost. Somewhat predictably, Jack storms into the fray, to hell with the consequences. For some of us who cooled on that kind of thing after getting our fill of Jim Thompson and Quentin Tarantino, torturing horrible villains and daring the drug cartels in their backyard may feel a little over-the-top. But if that's your bag, Hawken has an F-250 full of other stories for you: Juárez Dance, The Dead Women of Juárez, La Frontera, and Tequila Sunset. Hawken brings passion and a stripped-down narrative style to the calamitous environs of our borderlands on the south, where he seems to be on heartbreakingly familiar turf.

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