In Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.
Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…
Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.
The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.
The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.
City Without Stars is an intense, emotive and completely absorbing read, suffused with a violent energy, and with an unrelenting pace to its narrative. It heightens the reader’s senses and imagination throughout, completely enveloping the reader in this corrupt and violent society, with instances of intense human frailty and moments of strength, underpinned by precise description, and flurries of dark humour.
I thought it was absolutely marvellous. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)
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