Orbiting buzzards in the desert country often indicated that a person is dead out there somewhere. Those circling buzzards did in this case as U.S. Border Patrol Officer Dolph Martinez had seen them and headed their way while pursuing a group of undocumented workers that had crossed the border and were heading through the surrounding desert. Dolph Martinez had first seen the blood on a cactus and then found the body. While it is not immediately clear whether or not the deceased person was part of that group under custody nearby, it is clear is that the deceased probably died by way of having his head opened up via gunshot and not the perils of the desert. The deceased is also wearing distinctive boots and is not the first person wearing those particular style of boots to be found dead in the surrounding desert in recent days.

Based out of the hardship duty station in Presidio, Texas, Patrol Officer Dolph Martinez, wants to investigate the case. Especially because the deceased was found clutching a vial of blue metallic liquid. One of those reasons he wants to investigate is that Sister Quinn is known to pass these vials out now and then as some sort of talisman. In a region known for eccentrics, she stands out as she is part nun and part witch doctor. Some believe she is a saint in human form while other locals claim she transforms into an owl at night, just like the souls of the dead, and flies around to perch on tombstones. She is complicated and a sign that everything is going to get very complicated fast.


Investigating a murder has little to do with his job description, so his boss shuts down that idea. Instead, the mission of the Border Patrol is to round up the folks they were tracking, process them, and send them back across the border knowing full well they are going to see them again.


But, officer Dolph Martinez can’t leave it alone and is soon talking to the nun and many other folks while running afoul of his boss, an officious DEA agent, and a number of other folks who wish he would accept life as it is in the Border county where a river does nothing to stem the flow of people and goods. The investigation may kill him, body and soul, before he is through as things are going to get complicated and weird.


This book was the 1997 Frank Waters Southwest Writing Contest winner and was published in 1998. As such, it depicts the Southwest Texas border country that I grew up with and existed before 9/11 changed everything. Because it was published over twenty years ago, it reflects language that may offend some readers today as it repeatedly refers to “wets” which is slang for “wetbacks” or illegals. It also contains some language that does not reflect women in the best way of description along with some graphic scenes of intimate sexuality. It is a book in today’s world that, at times, some would classify as “edgy” and others would call misogynistic.


Regardless of all that, there is a complicated and quite intense bordering on the surreal read at work here. The tale does not fit easily into any labeling box. I enjoyed it while conceding that the last forty pages or so delves into the surreal and issues far too complicated to be easily explained. I also concede the fact that part of my appreciation was no doubt fueled by my love for the Big Band area that dates back to my earliest childhood memories. This is not a read for everyone, but it is a very good read.


El Camino Del Rio: A Novel

Jim Sanderson


University of New Mexico Press

August 1998

ISBN# 0-8263-1990-4

227 Pages



My reading copy came from the Downtown Branch of the Dallas Public Library System.


Kevin R. Tipple ©2021

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