As the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America, Texas-based novelist Harry Hunsicker knows his crime fiction. His previous three novels about Dallas P.I. Lee Henry Oswald were kicked off with the stellar Still River, which Kirkus dubbed “a gunfest debut.” There’s no less collateral damage in his new novel The Contractors, a savage crime saga that kicks off with a Mexican standoff and blows its way through more than 500 pages of gunfights, cartel retribution, fugitive paranoia and political corruption.
The novel, Amazon.com’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, stars a discredited former Dallas cop named Jon Cantrell, who has partnered up with another former law enforcement officer named Piper Westlake, sharing her bed as well as watching her back. In Hunsicker’s desiccated West Texas, Jon and Piper have become law enforcement contractors for a private company. It’s a dangerous confluence of governmental authority and private autonomy, as Hunsicker explains.
“The wrinkle is that he works inside the borders of the United States and he’s a private law enforcement contractor for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which means he takes a paycheck from a private company but he carries a gun and a badge and has the right to make an arrest,” Hunsicker says. “He and his partner take down the wrong shipment of drugs and end up with a witness in a big cartel trial. In order to stay alive, they have to take the witness across Texas.”
The witness in question is Eva Ramirez, a key witness against a savage cartel chief. Naturally the cartels are a favorite villain of writers from Texas to San Diego, where writers like Don Winslow have written about the creeping cross-border influence of the gang wars. But one of the most interesting aspects of The Contractors is the very concept of private citizens being utilized as armed law enforcement officers, which seems too strange to be true, but actually is.
“It’s pretty scary and yes, it really exists,” says Hunsicker. “I had the nucleus of the story and I needed to figure out what Cantrell did. I was watching the news and there was a story on about prisons in Texas. I figured out pretty quickly that most of the prisons in Texas are run by private corporations. That means that the prison guards are licensed law officers in the State of Texas but get their paychecks from private corporations.”
Hunsicker also saw a news story at the same time about the war in Iraq and America’s private military contractors working there. “So I said, ‘What if they were working over here? What would they be doing?’ They would easily be working as private law enforcement officers. I did a little research and found out that there are some branches in the federal law enforcement apparatus that actually do use private contractors. They’re all geared up and have all the equipment and the appropriations to do some real damage. That’s where this all started.”
As with his previous works, Dallas and the barrens of West Texas become characters unto themselves within the pages of The Contractors, as well as Hunsicker’s recent short story, “The Stickup Girl,” which was selected for inclusion in the Dallas Noir collection recently published by Akashic Books. From tense assaults on drug warehouses to seedy gun shops to shootouts in remote parking lots, Hunsicker commands a virtuoso control over his environs, taking inspiration from a fellow crime novelist not too far away from the Lone Star State.
“One of my favorite writers is James Lee Burke and he uses setting so incredibly well that it’s inspiring,” says Hunsicker. “He’s just a brilliant writer. I love his books because it’s like taking a trip without really going anywhere. You feel the heat on your back and you smell the smells of the bayou. That’s always appealed to me so I’ve always tried to bring that sensibility into my own work.”
Meanwhile, Jon and Piper are characteristically messed-up characters, even for crime fiction. Jon’s fall from grace came from a politically unpopular bust during the colorfully remembered “Night of a Thousand Lap Dances,” while Piper is an orphan, deeply wounded and suspicious from a lifetime of self-protection.
“I think you can make the case that they both took on some emotional damage somewhere along the line,” Hunsicker admits. “In most fiction, you need to have characters who have an issue or two.”
The intersection of governmental graft, institutionalized drug trafficking and this new phenomenon of privatized military personnel is a frightening confluence of events, and the author admits that it’s a purposeful threat.
“I think that anytime you throw that much money around, you’re asking for corruption. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Hunsicker says. “Especially in the wake of 9-11, we’ve increased the spending so much—not only at the Pentagon but also at the Department of Homeland Security. I’m all for keeping the terrorists out of the United States but the amount of spending that has gone into it and the lack of accountability is terrifying….I think any time that people start asking questions, it’s a good thing.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.