Article published on February 16, 2018.
This new series will focus on the crime fiction of a particular nation or region. The idea is to provide a flavour of the country through its writing, pointing readers towards some writers and novels to look out for. It’s based on my own reading, so it’s not intended to be comprehensive, but I hope to bring some new names to you. All the books covered are published in English and available now, some are written by foreign writers (i.e. in this case non-Mexican novelists), which adds another perspective. The novels covered are all recommended reads; I haven’t bothered with reads I did not enjoy. Variety being the spice of life, why not start with a Mexican chilli?
Some recipes for chilli include a square of dark chocolate, since it adds a richness to the hot spicy mix. That’s Mexican crime fiction – hot, spicy and dark. Did you know there were over 27,000 murders in Mexico in 2017 (International Institute for Strategic Studies)? Bodies are even turning up on the beaches of Cancun; of course, the corpses are removed before the tourists get their towels on the sunbeds. The Mexican Government points out the murder rates in Venezuela and Brazil are worse, although what consolation this is to the people of Mexico I have no idea. Sofia, a medical assistant says “It doesn’t rain water here. It rains lead” (The Guardian).
England and Wales have a combined murder rate of roughly 650 p.a. (based on the year to September 2017). It’s nothing to be proud of, but if we had the same murder rate as Mexico there would be 12,975 murders a year. We have an obsession with crime fiction in the UK, and not to make light of the terrible human tragedy that every murder represents, the comparative stats almost make you wonder if we could contemplate the situation in Mexico? That said, this is not about bashing Mexico, my point is real life is always reflected in crime fiction.
Mexican crime fiction targets these national issues; the level of state corruption and the influence of criminal gangs in politics, poverty, abuse of power and plight of refugees. They say something about the national obsessions and self image. Of course, there is one other thing that dominates Mexican crime fiction, the border, La Frontera, the divide between the north and the south, which is so much in the news because of Donald Trump’s wall.
Here are my choices for the flavour of Mexico:
Tim Baker – City Without Stars. (Just published and reviewed on Nudge). Set in Ciudad Real, Mexico, 2000. The cartels have been at each others throats for many years, the city is virtually lawless and war is breaking out. Local factory women are being murdered. Victim no. 873, beaten, raped and strangled, has just been dumped outside one of the sweat shops. Detective Fuentes investigates but the cartels, the police commanders, factory bosses and the state administration want to close him down. Narco kingpin El Santo owns this city and the Narcotraficantes act with impunity. Meanwhile, several attempts have been made on the life of union activist Pilar, but she is brave enough to take a stand. How deep is the conspiracy? Why are so many women being murdered? No one knows if all the victims have been reported missing, many haven’t been found and hundreds remain unidentified. Chilling and thrilling, a great read. ****
Elmer Mendoza – Silver Bullets. Mendoza’s Name of the Dog, the latest in the Detective Edgar “Lefty” Mendieta series has just been published (a review will feature on Nudge in March). In Sliver Bullets, Mendieta is a tortured cop, the all-pervasive corruption and his deeply messed on personal life have left him battered. When lawyer Bruno Canizales is murdered in Culiacán, Mexico’s capital of narco-crime, the suspects are lining up round the block, its another day of the week with a ‘y’ in it! The cartel barons and the politicians use the same tailors, eat in the same restaurants and are mostly the same side of the criminal divide. It’s hard to tell them apart. Canizales had a thing for cross dressing, was dating the daughter of a drug-lord and his father was a former government minster. It’s a dark story but Mendoza has a wicked sense of humour. The questions he faces are why the assassin use a silver bullet? And who is next on the hit list? Maybe more marmite than Baker but I loved this edgy, witty murder mystery. ****
Sam Hawken – The Dead Women of Juárez. Hawken’s novel, which was published earlier, explores the true story City Without Stars covers in fictional form: the murdered women of La Frontera. It is very different in style and plot. In the middle of cartel land, Ciudad Juárez, several hundred women have disappeared or turned up dead. Local people believe the true number of disappeared stands in the thousands. Kelly Courter, a washed-out Texan boxer, and Mexican detective Rafael Sevilla are drawn into the investigation of the latest victim. They begin to inhabit the world of the drugs lords, believing they can maintain integrity and find the answers to the murders. They will need to stand up not only to the criminals but also the total corruption of the institutions and authorities in the city. The Dead Women of Juárez is about the obsession the two men have for finding the truth behind the murders. To give some closure to the female victims of the Mexican border wars. Hawken has written a number to decent thrillers set in or around borderlands but this novel packs a punch.****
James M. Cain – Serenade (see full review on Nudge last month). A cross border tale of a lost American down on his luck until he meets a young prostitute and they team up. Everything works out until an old friend inserts himself into the relationship. It’s destined to end badly. Classic noir, very perceptive on cultural differences, with a couple of neat surprises. ***
Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory. This may seem like an exclusively literary novel but Greene always wrote with the thriller element in mind and this noirish tale is part of the mood in Mexican crime literature. The ‘whisky priest’, a worldly man, is on the run from the authorities. A crack down and backlash against the church is in full vicious swing. The police are gradually tightening the net, the escape routes are being closed off. His chance of survival are very slim. He is a priest, a flawed but decent man full of love for his people, and it is his compassion and humanity that may betray him. He must chose his destiny: abandon those who need him or continue his pastoral care and risk death. The human condition laid bare, perceptive and exhilarating. *****
Yuri Herrera – The Transmigration of Bodies. One of three novels by Herrera that could have featured here. A man known as The Redeemer is sent to broker a peace between two feuding crime families, much blood has been spilt and feelings are running high. A plague has brought death to the region and crippled the city. The Redeemer is a classic hard boiled hero, the loner who just has to do what he has to do no matter the cost. He knows he should walk away, his instincts and the empty streets are a warning. Still The Redeemer ventures out into the city’s underworld to arrange for the exchange of the bodies that the gangs hold hostage. Highly literary, Yuri Herrera’s novel is a damning indictment of Mexico’s democracy and the violence in society occasioned by the drug wars. There’s a little of Romeo and Juliet in this tale, and echoes of Roberto Bolano and Raymond Chandler in the writing.****
Paco Ignacio Taibo – Some Clouds. I could have picked one of a number of Taibo novels including his collaboration with Commandante Marcos (see The Uncomfortable Dead). Fast-paced action with real bite. Mexico City detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is on his holiday when his sister asks him to return home urgently. Anita, her childhood friend has been raped, brutally beaten and nearly killed by unknown assailants. Anita has recently married into a very wealthy family, the Costas, but her husband and his two brothers have been murdered. During his investigation, Héctor forges a link with a novelist who is writing a crime thriller based upon the recent murder of a gang of narcotraficantes. The crime traces directly back to Judicial Police Commander Saavedra. If Anita survives she is inline to inherit a 200 million peso fortune. She, the novelist and the detective are all in danger. This is a city where the social and political institutions are hopelessly corrupt. What chance do they have in these circumstances? ***
Rolo Diez – Tequila Blue. Again set in Mexico City but this time with a totally different type of cop. Carlos Hernandez, Carlito to his women, is a police detective with a complicated life. The state isn’t very good at getting the pay checks to its officials on time and Hernandez has two families to keep. There’s his wife and children as well as his mistress and her children. To Carlos, it seems natural to resort to pimping, blackmail, money laundering and arms dealing to finance his life style and police activity. He’s telling himself the money for justice must be found somewhere. A dead gringo, a porn lover by the looks of it, is found dead in his hotel room. Hernandez is a loner and his maverick investigation leads him even deeper into the world of gang wars, murdered prostitutes and politicians you wouldn’t trust as far as you could throw them. Dark and moody****
Paco Ignacio Taibo II (ed.) – Mexico City Noir. Short stories set in and around Mexico City brilliantly edited by the great Mexican writer Taibo. It doesn’t get much more noir than this. This collection is thrilling, dramatic, chilling and frequently funny. Writers include: Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Eugenio Aguirre, Oscar de la Borbolla, Rolo Diez, Victor Luiz Gonzalez, Juan Hernandez Luna, Eduardo Monteverde and Julia Rodriguez. Moody, frightening and totally exciting.****
Rafael Bernal – The Mongolian Conspiracy. Set in the run up to a state visit by the President of the United States. Filiberto Garcia, “gun for hire”, is an ex-Mexican revolutionary, and a classic anti-hero. He has been recruited by the Mexican police to discover whether or not there is any truth in the rumour (KGB and FBI reports) that there might be a hitman, part of a Chinese-Mongolian plot, in the city to assassinate the Soviet and American presidents during the unveiling of a statue. Garcia leaves a trail of death behind him as he trawls Mexico City’s Chinatown in search of a killer. A pulsating conspiracy thriller. ****
Craig McDonald (ed.) – Borderlands Noir. A collection of stories and essays set around La Frontera. A review will appear next month on Nudge. A couple of really interesting essays on Pancho Villa and the film Touch of Evil plus some great noir tales of the border (Narcotraficantes, refugees, people smugglers, border guards). Inc. James Sallis, Ken Bruen, Martín Solares. Witty, dark, pithy stories. ****
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano. Strictly speaking not a crime novel but it’s all about the mood and this sets. It’s fiesta ‘the day of the Dead’ in Quauhnahuac, a small town in Mexico that nests under the volcano. Ex-husband, ex-consul and current alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin is living the last few days of his life and, as readers, we are invited to follow his agonising end. A Faustian masterpiece, (according to Anthony Burgess).****
La Frontera by Sam Hawken will also be reviewed on Nudge next month.