Illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border seems destined to be a topic of debate during next year’s presidential race. So the publication of Craig McDonald’s new standalone novel, El Gavilan, is well-timed.

This tale takes place in a fictional Ohio town that’s struggling with its growing influx of Latinos. Racism and violence have both reared their ugly heads in what used to be a quiet community. Now, the rape-murder of a Mexican-American woman, Thalia Ruiz, threatens to cause those tensions to boil over, and it falls to the town’s just-installed police chief, former Border Patrol commander Tell Lyon, along with a corners-cutting, hard-line county sheriff, Able Hawk (“El Gavilan”—The Hawk—of this book’s title), to bring down Ruiz’s assailants before more blood and divisiveness are spread.

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McDonald is an Ohio journalist and fiction writer best known for his series of historical mysteries—most recently, One True Sentence—featuring writer and part-time sleuth Hector Lassiter, along with his best friend, Ernest Hemingway. (Yes, that Ernest Hemingway.) Below, McDonald talks about El Gavilan’s history and the issues it raises.

El Gavilan is very much a social novel. It deals not only with a criminal investigation, but also with the dilemma of illegal immigration. I’m impressed that you accomplished all of this without shortchanging thriller readers or beating them over the head with political commentary. Did you start with the murder story or with the wish to write something of greater social relevance?

The two elements were entwined from conception. I had recently reread [John] Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that novel, with its themes of immigration, destitution, and its format of interleaving chapters, were something I was thinking of in the shaping of El Gavilan. It’s the one novel of mine where I let my journalism background really have its head. At the same time, I was very cautious about trying not to preach.

Have you had opportunities over the years to report on the movement of illegal immigrants into the Upper Midwest?

It’s very much drawn from what I was seeing around me in central Ohio, particularly starting in the middle- to late-1990s and reaching a peak right around 2002 or ’03. It was a drawn-from-the-headlines work and some of those headlines I’d written in a journalistic context. There was an apartment-complex fire—later determined to be a racially motivated arson—very similar to the one I describe near the beginning of the novel. A cockfighting ring run by undocumented workers was broken up about a mile from my hometown. And an Ohio sheriff or two really was using Homeland Security funds to post billboards similar to those county sheriff Able Hawk posts in El Gavilan. Like Hawk, those same sheriffs were also attempting to bill the federal government for jail costs they incurred, claiming the government was liable because of lax border security. 

You’ve often written novels way ahead of their publication. When did you finish El Gavilan? References in these pages suggest it was sometime during George W. Bush’s administration.

You’ve nailed it correctly. Bush was indeed president when I wrote El Gavilan. Lou Dobbs was still fulminating about illegal immigration every night on CNN.

The fact is, El Gavilan was written in 2005. I finished Head Games, my debut novel, early in 2005, along with completing a collection of author interviews, Rogue Males, in the early winter. When I finished Head Games, which introduced…Hector Lassiter, I decided to write El Gavilan, a project that spanned late spring to early fall of 2005. I wrapped El Gavilan in early September. Between October and late December of that same year, I wrote the sequel to Head Games, Toros & Torsos [2008]. It was my most prolific year as a writer, and done in tandem with newspaper work. I look back at that year now and wonder how I wrote so much.

Which character did you feel closest to while composing this book?

Tell Lyon was the guy I was closest to. He’s the kind of guy I like to read about…one who thinks he is this kind of guy, but who really runs in opposition to his own self-image in some fundamental ways. [Screenwriter] David Milch describes such characters as ones who “spin against their own drives.” I wanted Tell to embody that quality, and Hawk, too. Oddly, the journalist in the book, Shawn O’Hara, was the guy I felt the most distance from in most ways.

You do well at defying our expectations of what the main players are all about. Yet the people behind Ruiz’s murder come off as comparatively shallow and obviously malicious. Didn’t the “bad guys” deserve greater dimension, too, in order that readers could’ve been more shocked by what they were capable of?

I was in the process of laying down a very gray villain in Toros & Torsos, and I think I had done the same thing in Head Games. In El Gavilan, the villains, who are operating under color of authority, were modeled on some very bent local lawmen who were on my mind at the time. Because the novel is a social novel in a sense, and because the murder that sparks the plot doesn’t occur until nearly 100 pages into the book, I was aiming to layer in some suspense by just making it clear these villains were passionately intense—the reader is in on that fact from the jump, well in advance of Lyon or Hawk.

That’s one reason why I balk when people try to describe this novel as a mystery. It’s clear very early on who the killer is. My interest is in watching the characters bounce off one another in the pursuit of some kind of justice for the murdered woman.

If I remember correctly, you’re only four novels into your seven-book Hector Lassiter series. Which work comes next, and where will it take your protagonist?

There are eight novels written in the Lassiter series. Because they were nearly all written before the first novel was published, books have been announced and then pulled back when some editor or myself decided another book seemed a better prospect at the time of publication. Because of that fact, I’m a little gun-shy about predicting which Lassiter novel will come next.

One True Sentence was kind of the swansong for Hemingway within the series. But that novel introduced a female mystery author named Brinke Devlin, who Hector romanced. I think the next novel will be the one that kind of completes Brinke’s story, a novel set in 1925 Key West and based around a couple of historic crimes. That novel’s likely title is Never Send ’Em to the River, which comes from a quote by a famous con man. The novel, as it happens, also spins around an infamous con artist who has a special connection to Hector.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.