John Grant, The Lonely Hunter (2012)

Full disclosure: John Grant is a friend – but I knew his fiction first of all, and this novella from PS Publishing is as good as ever. Our narrator is one Emil Martenson, a writer recalling how he first met his wife Natalie. At the time, she was married to Danny Lerner, a best-selling American novelist living in luxury in France. The much less successful Emil had taken on a commission to interview Lerner – which was interrupted by the latter’s untimely death. It wouldn’t be until many years later that Emil would meet Natalie again and discover the truth about the erratic shape of Lerner’s career; why he veered so dramatically between long periods of being withdrawn and bursts of passionate articulacy; and the real reason for Lerner’s death.

As a murder mystery, The Lonely Hunter plays the game with its red herrings and twists. But Grant’s novella is about more than that: Emil is open about the fact that he has changed some of the identifying details of his tale, and muses over the differences between real life and fiction. This is what I think is at the heart of The Lonely Hunter: individuals creating stories about themselves and others, to the extent that they become fictional characters, of a sort – and you’ll close the book wondering exactly where the boundaries between reality and fiction lie.

Sam Hawken, Tequila Sunset (2012)

At the start of Tequila Sunset, Flip Morales is released from prison and returns home to El Paso, Texas – but he can’t leave his gangland past behind.

Soon he is reluctantly caught up in one his gang’s drug trafficking operations while also acting as a police informant. Two further protagonists are police officers investigating the gang’s activities: Cristina Salas in El Paso, and Matías Segura over the Mexican border in Ciudad Juárez. As the big job goes down all three characters find their lives at risk and their close relationships tested to the limit.

Sam Hawken pitches the tone of his second novel just right: this is a book that deals with violent and brutal subject matter, but it never feels gratuitous or sensationalist. Each narrative thread is anchored in everyday concerns: Flip’s trying to make good in work and life; Cristina’s concern for her young son; Matías’s relationship with his wife.

The sense you get is of people doing what they can in the face of social issues almost too great to comprehend. Hawken makes the point that the gang is greater than its individual parts: that if someone’s removed there will always be another to take their place. Even as Tequila Sunset resolves, you know there’s more out there that we haven’t even seen, that the story Hawken tells is part of a much broader canvas of events. The novel is a thrilling ride, but it also makes you appreciate the seriousness behind it.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)