JAMES L’ETOILE – When Fiction and Reality Collide

There’s the devil you know and the devil within
—when the two collide; no one is safe.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novel, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. Black Label earned the Silver Falchion for Best Book by an Attending Author at Killer Nashville, and he was nominated for The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. Dead Drop garnered a Lefty and Anthony Award and Silver Falchion nomination. Devil Within is his most recent novel. Look for Face of Greed, coming in 2023.

Hundreds go missing each year, making the dangerous crossing over the border. What if you were one of them?

That’s the back cover copy from DEAD DROP, my novel, which looks at border violence, border politics, and who is really caught in the middle of that struggle.

The impetus for the series came several years ago when I worked in the California prison system. I was leading an audit at a prison near San Diego when a very odd set of circumstances revealed themselves. The prison is near the border, and you can see “The Wall” from the yard. Undocumented migrants use the trails around the prison’s hills to make their way north.

The type of audit I was conducting was a stressful event for the administration at the prison. They want to make sure everything is running smoothly and got to great effort to make sure The Guys From Sacramento don’t find any security issues. When I arrived, the warden’s office was frantic for the most basic reason—they could not clear their count. That meant the official number of inmates the prison was supposed to have didn’t match the official records.

As you can imagine—this is a bad thing, and the warden had visions of his career crashing on the rocks.

They soon isolated the problem to the minimum facility, a smaller 250-bed unit housing low-risk inmates outside the main prison fence. After several more counts, they found they had one more person than they were supposed to have. Finally, they discovered the reason for the bad count. An undocumented migrant was so cold and so hungry he broke into prison for a warm place to spend the night.

How difficult was the crossing that breaking into prison was his best option?

That stuck in my mind as I wrote DEAD DROP. I don’t pretend to portray the migrant experience—that’s not my story to tell. But I can reflect on the desperation and hardship I witnessed for those leaving everything familiar to come to a strange new land.

That’s where DEAD DROP begins when Detective Nathan Parker discovers a series of undocumented migrants buried in the desert. The forces behind the murders might not be who you’d expect. We learn early on that Detective Parker’s partner was murdered by a coyote smuggling the undocumented over the border, and as you can imagine, that colors his perspective of the immigration issue. He follows the evidence to find his partner’s killer, only to become trapped on the other side of the border. He needs to rely on the undocumented to get him safely back home.

This first book in the Detective Nathan Parker series garnered a Lefty Award nomination for Best Mystery Novel of the Year, an Anthony Award nomination for Best Paperback Original Novel, A Silver Falchion Award nomination for Best Investigator Novel, and the Public Safety Writers Association awarded Dead Drop with the Marilyn Meredith Award of Literary Excellence as the best-published novel.

The sequel, DEVIL WITHIN, was released on July 18th. It takes the story further when Detective Parker finds a connection between a series of shooting victims—each of them held a role in an organization founded to help undocumented migrants make the crossing. Where there are vulnerable people, isolated from their own culture, predators line their pockets, offering hollow promises of jobs, housing, and hope—all at the expense of the most helpless. Parker soon discovers no one is exactly who they seem.

You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com


  1. Pamela Ruth Meyer

    James, your book addresses an incredibly tough topic and a heartbreaking one. Thanks for bringing a touching dose of humanity to an issue that strains so very many while breaking the spirit and bodies of so many more we will never even know about.

  2. Peg Roche

    Congratulations, James! I’ll look forward to reading both. I enjoyed your presentation at PSWA this month!

  3. Vicki Weisfeld

    This sounds like a great read! Such a difficult subject, worthy of whatever attention we can give it.

  4. Lisa Towles

    Great interview and congrats on your successes!

  5. Margaret Mizushima

    I’m thrilled by the success of this series, James! Looking forward to seeing you soon at Bouchercon. Thanks for sharing your experience and talent with us!

  6. Robin Somers

    James, your series sounds (and looks) intriguing. Congratulations on your award and nominations! Sad stories set in a sacred desert place hooks me, especially fiction inspired by reality.

  7. Joseph Bryce HAGGERTY Sr

    I’ve read Dead Drop and it is great. The characters are real, the story is current and the settings vivid.

  8. Thonie Hevron

    Great to see you again at PSWA! Congrats on your well-deserved awards. I’ll be following up the second Nathan Parker novel soon. Can’t wait~

  9. Bob Doerr

    I’m definitely looking forward to reading them! James, it was great to meet you at the PSWA conference.

  10. Marilyn Meredith

    I have to get this one still. It is on the tope of my list.

  11. Michael A. Black

    I’m really looking forward to reading Nathan Parker’s latest adventure. Dead Drop was excellent and deserving of all the accolades it received. James is a fabulous writer, so if you haven’t read his stuff yet, don’t delay. You won’t be disappointed.

  12. Valerie Brooks

    James, fantastic ideas, themes, and story. You have the cred to write such stories and I thank you for that. We only hear what the news lets us hear and fiction often captures the heart and soul of a story that is missing with the media. Congrats on your success!

  13. Francelia Belton

    Hi James! Both of these novels sound like interesting reads! I’ll be sure to check them out. 🙂

  14. Pat Weill

    Looks great!

  15. Donnell Ann Bell

    James, what a fantastic impetus for a book! Congratulations on all your success! Well done. Thanks, George!


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