When I tell you I loved Breaking Bad, I need you to know that I don’t just love Breaking Bad the way people “love mac and cheese” or “love that color on you.” I love it so much that it’s my BFF tattoo.
When Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spinoff was announced, I was only skeptical until I heard that it was a prequel and that there would be more Mike (Jonathan Banks). You know, Mike, the fixer. The big, bald, scary, white dude without whom everyone’s everything would fall apart. Mike is my jam—second favorite only to Tío Hector (Mark Margolis). Our BFF tattoo comes from Mike’s monologue to Walt in Season 3’s penultimate episode. In that episode, Walt tries to band-aid the problem of Jesse’s hot head by sending him to jail to cool off, which actually will exacerbate the problem. The thesis of that talk is the subject of that tattoo: No half measures.
So, this premise might seem a little familiar. Mario is in medical debt (see?) from his daughter’s illness. He resorts to taking a job as a hit man, and he surprises himself at how he naturally takes to the violence. Of course, once you get into a business like that, it’s not easy to get out, so his story becomes intertwined with an old friend and a cartel boss on a job that will either get him out of debt completely or end his life.
The main character of this book ticks a lot of the same boxes as the protagonist of the novel above: they’re both Mexican men who become hitmen for the cartel. But this book is a true story. It tells the real-life account of El Sicario, who tortured and murdered dozens of people before he turned to Christianity.
Another true crime novel for your short list, but this time following professional killer Jose Martinez, who hid in plain sight for decades. He killed for hire, and he killed for vengeance, and in between those two things, he took his kids to Disneyland and visited his mother. This book focuses on how Martinez evaded the police, and perhaps more importantly, how our criminal justice system is so easily gamed by men like him, who know how to play.
If you’re into following the hardboiled professionals like Saul, try this one. Detective Betty Rhyzyk has just been assigned desk duty after a run-in with a doomsday cult, and even with a supportive wife at home, her adjustment to normal life is not coming easily. That’s when she goes rogue on a mission to straighten out the crooked cops handing Dallas over to its cartel.
And if you love a strong female lead in your western gangster noir, this one might be next on your list. You likely know Thomas Harris’ work from his series about Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and while this novel does feature a strong, dry female lead and a whimsical monster, that’s where their similarities end. Cari Mora is a Colombian living with tenuous immigrant status in Miami, where she works several jobs… one of those jobs is caretaker of a mansion. She quickly learns that the mansion is built over a cache of Pablo Escobar’s hidden gold, and she watches and waits as ruthless vultures like Hans-Peter Schneider circle in.
Look, I have to end this list strong, and there’s no better way to do it than with this masterpiece. You likely have heard that this giant of a literary writer died at age 89 this week, and you probably noticed that every single post quoting his work is an absolute banger. This whole book goes hard like that. In 1980, good ol’ boy Llewellyn Moss is hunting game when he happens upon the site of a recent cartel shootout in which almost everyone has died. He also happens upon two million dollars in cash, which he grabs and stashes under his trailer. Thinking about that last, dying man out in the desert, he wakes in the middle of the night to take him a jug of water, and that seems to set the chase in motion. As he tells his wife later, “Baby, at what point would you stop looking for your two million dollars?”
Like I said, No Country for Old Men is probably my favorite of McCarthy’s works, but so many of them would be great reads for fans of Better Call Saul, including Blood Meridian and the entire Border Trilogy.
What to Read Next
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.