There’s a reason the American Southwest is such fertile ground for fiction, says Gabino Iglesias, a novelist (2018’s Coyote Songs) and the editor of the forthcoming anthology Both Sides: Stories from the Border (Agora, Apr.). “It’s an interstitial space where food and music, the way we dress and talk to each other, all blend together. We’re talking about a place where Spanglish is literally a language. But it’s also a place where many people live in fear and have nowhere to go.”
Both Sides collects stories that span the U.S.-Mexico border. Contributors include 25-year DEA veteran J. Todd Scott, author of a trio of thrillers set in the Texas border region as well as the forthcoming Lost River (Putnam, June), a “powerful standalone,” PW’s review said, in which fentanyl-laced heroin from Mexico lands in a small Kentucky town. In Scott’s contribution to the anthology, “Waw Kiwulik,” indigenous people along the border fight to regain access to their ancestral lands.
Many of the collection’s 15 stories incorporate speculative or paranormal elements, and taken together, they aim to present a broader perspective than is often found in fiction on the subject.
“I didn’t want stories about people crossing the border,” Iglesias says. “I wanted stories about living near and on the border. I wanted to show that the border happens on both sides.”
Darkness at the edge
The term “border noir” is frequently used as a shorthand for crime fiction set along the U.S.-Mexico border. James Carlos Blake, a fourth-generation Mexican of American, English, and Irish ancestry who now lives in Arizona, literally wrote the book—actually, several books—on it. His Border Noir series centers on the Wolfes, a family of gunrunners. In the latest installment, The Bones of Wolfe (Mysterious, July), Rudy and Frank Wolfe try to track down a woman who is mixed up with the Sinaloa drug cartel and may be a long-lost family member.
“When I think of border noir, I think of the desert and the cartels,” Blake says. “The desert functions as a character of its own, and members of the cartels were some of the meanest sonabitches that have come along in a long time in this part of the world.”
Don Winslow, author of the forthcoming crime fiction collection Broken (Morrow, Apr.), completed his Cartel trilogy in 2019 with The Border. The first book in the series, The Power of the Dog, pubbed in 2005, and a decade passed before its sequel, The Cartel, was released. In a 2015 essay for PW, Winslow explained why he returned to the subject: “The more I saw of the escalating violence, the all-permeating corruption, the ever-worsening drug epidemic in the United States, the more I knew that I would write the story.... I knew that I had left it unfinished, just as the drug war in Mexico was unfinished.”
As Winslow brought his trilogy to what PW’s starred review called a “stunning conclusion,” other authors have taken up his mantle. In Make Them Cry (Ecco, Sept.) by Smith Henderson (Fourth of July Creek) and first-time novelist Jon Marc-Smith, DEA agent Diane Harbaugh heads to the border after receiving intel from a high-ranking cartel member that unearths a conspiracy dating to the beginning of the Afghanistan War. “We wanted to explore the idea of a service that helps black market entities,” Henderson says, “the same kind of service that often helps save rich people from impending disaster.”
Smith says their novel shares certain characteristics with other border thrillers: “The border becomes a manifestation of the various dimensions of the law. It’s lucrative for all players, whether crime lord or law enforcement.”
Death Rattle (Forge, July), the second standalone novel by Alex Gilly after 2015’s Devil’s Harbor, focuses on Nick Finn, a border patrol officer, and Mona Jimenz, his wife and a human rights lawyer. When a young woman who fled Tijuana by boat turns up dead at a private detention center, Finn and Jimenez investigate, but the truth of what happened to her is obscured by institutional corruption.
“We live in a world where people are moving nonstop, and it has consequences on the host countries,” Gilly says. For Death Rattle, he wanted to explore not just the political and social issues engendered by the border, but how those issues resonate in the personal sphere: in this case, in a marriage. “I wondered how it would work if two people were on opposite sides of a political question.”
For authors of border noir, stories can be as personal as they are political. “Crime fiction is a repository of human wants, needs, and actions,” Blake says. “In border noir, you get all three stripped down to the unrelenting core.”