My new novel, Donkey Show, is out in trade paperback. The digital version will come next month, with the official launch.
The idea for the novel came back in the ’80s. I was working as a general assignment reporter at the (now defunct) El Paso Herald-Post when a freelance photographer returned from a harrowing experience across the border, in Ciudad Juarez. A reputed drug lord, Gilberto Ontiveros, and his henchmen had beaten and mock-executed the photographer, Al Gutierrez, apparently mistaking him for a DEA agent. Guiterrez brought back a death threat from Ontiveros for our lead drug reporter, Terrence Poppa.
The newspaper, naturally, ran with this as a series of front-page stories, nothing less than a crusade. It was accompanied by editorials accusing the Mexican government of sheltering the drug lord. This pressure eventually led to Ontiveros’ arrest. Our editors viewed it as a journalistic triumph.
Poppa was an excellent, hard-working reporter, who later was nominated for a Pulitzer for his investigative work. In his Herald-Post series, he reported that Ontiveros traveled around Juarez in a Mercedes limousine with a carload of “pistoleros” in front or back. The drug lord’s trademark, he wrote, was a briefcase with the words “The Boss” spelled out in diamonds.
For my novel, I started with that same story, but changed it in crucial ways. What would happen, I wondered, if everything in the story had been wrong — if the original reporting had been flawed, and if the death threat had come not from the drug lord, but by underlings who wanted to see him thrown in jail. In such a case, the newspaper would be running its crusade based on misunderstandings. And the reporter — a lazy one, in my story — would have to put the pieces together.
That’s the essence of Donkey Show. I placed the story in 1993, just as the United States and Mexico (and Canada) were finalizing a continental free trade agreement (Nafta). This gives the fictional newspaper (a less ethical one than the Herald-Post) more leverage in its campaign. It’s still a time when regional newspapers carry weight. The digitalization of media is still in the future. Cell phones, huge with antennas, are luxury items for the rich. In short, information is more scarce, and the resulting ignorance drives the plot on both sides of the border.
My 2014 novel, The Boost, also takes place along the border, though in the future, not the past. In fact, the protagonist of The Boost, a coder named Ralf, is the great grandson of Tom Harley, the lazy death-threatened reporter of Donkey Show.