If you’re at all familiar with Craig McDonald’s work, you know dude’s well fucking ambitious. His Hector Lassiter series (Head Games, Toros and Torsos, Print the Legend, and One True Sentence) is one of the most original and sprawling series going, each book wildly different from the last and insanely well researched. If you’re at all familiar with my reviews, you know few books inspire rock hard nerd-boners in me quite like a new McDonald novel. But despite my expectations and knowledge of the man’s work, the Nerd was not prepared for El Gavilan, a deeply felt and hugely thrilling Dickensian melodrama about the immigration issue told through the sun-blasted prism of a fictional Ohio town.
El Gavilan is the story of Tell Lyon, a former Border Patrol agent who lost his family to a Mexican gangster reprisal a year previous recently hired on a Chief of the small New Austin police department. He learns the ropes quickly, proves himself a fair and honest officer, especially in comparison to Horton County Sheriff Able Hawk (the El Gavilan of the title), a famously anti-immigrant local celebrity of questionable methods. But when the body of a legal immigrant is found in an area of sketchy jurisdiction, the two men must work together to solve the rape and murder before racial tensions in the town boil over.
From that description, El Gavilan seems simple enough. Murder mystery with two strong personalities clashing with one another in an interesting setting. Done and done. But though that may seem like what you’re getting into at first, McDonald eventually reveals that his story is something far different and more (say it with me) ambitious than you, ignorant and silly reader I know you to very well be, at first imagined. (I take that back – you seem nice enough and are a really good dancer, at the very least.)
El Gavilan isn’t a mystery in that we learn who the perpetrator is fairly early on, McDonald instead using the investigation as a jumping off point to explore his large cast of characters and their distinct place of residence. The narrative switches often from the present to short vignettes from the characters’ pasts, telling of their harrowing treks across the border or the violent and soul-crushing events that shaped them into the people they are today.
McDonald’s characters all have a strong facade covering their true natures. Able Hawk initially seems like a villain, with his inflammatory, jingoistic blog, his horrifying self-promotional billboards and shady police tactics, but he eventually reveals himself to be a troubled man of noble intentions. Tell Lyon’s straight-arrow persona masks deep hidden reserves of pain and a capacity for ruthless violence. Local reporter Shawn O’Hara seems like a shallow and pathetic cad but later proves to be ridiculously fucking badass.
Folks are gonna talk about this one, dear reader, no denying that shit. It’s a social novel that doesn’t beat you over the head with its themes and a thriller that doesn’t cheat or go too “big.” It’s tender one moment and savage the next. The storytelling is organic and clean yet you can never guess where the novel will take you next. El Gavilan is big, bold socially relevant stuff delivered painlessly through tight prose and unflagging tension. In other words, it’s everything you’d hope to get from a modern day master stretching his impressive-as-all-hell wings.