Few contemporary war zones are as ugly as the one just south of the U.S. border. Since late 2006, when the Mexican government escalated its response to drug cartels, an estimated 18,000 people have been killed. In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the violence, more than 1,600 people were murdered in 2008 alone.

An experienced investigative journalist like Charles Bowden can typically be trusted to defog such a situation, describing the lead players and explaining the motivations behind the bloodshed. But what's alarming and strangely compelling about his new book, "Murder City," is how he resists the job. "We are in a place without beginning or end, and all the ways to tell the story fail me and repel me," he writes. The Mexican army, he argues, is corrupt. The police are too terrified to leave their stations. Journalists who attempt to do more than parrot the police blotter are killed; simply being a reporter makes one a target. Traditional news gathering and storytelling don't apply here.

Yet Bowden uncovers some insights into the bloody culture of Ciudad Juarez, which he visited as the violence escalated in 2008. He alternates profiles of three people: "Miss Sinaloa," a woman living in a desert asylum after being raped multiple times by police officers; Emilio Gutierrez, a reporter who explains how he learned to report murders without becoming a victim himself; and an unnamed former cartel hitman, who provides Bowden details of his drug-fueled lifestyle as well as tips on conducting successful executions.

Perhaps by necessity, Bowden's portrait of Ciudad Juarez is impressionistic, which can make for spasms of purple prose. Describing a meal with a woman who runs a shelter for abused women, he writes: "We have eggs, chilis, squash, tortillas. And death." But Bowden's overheated rhetoric is partly a retort to the hollow rhetoric he hears from politicians and law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Claims that the war against the cartels is being won are so much hot air to Bowden; that the U.S. government gives $1.4 billion to the Mexican army is "a piece of black humor." Through Bowden's eyes, Ciudad Juarez is a lawless place, but he almost respects its grisly efficiency. "Killing is not deviance," he writes, "it is a logical career decision for thousands floundering in a failing economy and a failing state."

If Bowden fails to order this chaos, it isn't for lack of trying. The book's appendix shows his attempt to log news reports of murders in Ciudad Juarez from Jan. 1, 2008, through the end of the year. It's oppressive, heartbreaking reading that only underscores the senselessness of the violence. Bowden stopped keeping track in May, finding the work "unbearable." It's easy to sympathize.

Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.