Name of the Dog by Elmer Mendoza

Review published on March 12, 2018.

Name of the Dog is the third in the Lefty Mendieta series; intelligent, insightful and very real. If I had to name one crime writer whose fiction best encapsulates the corruption, the drug wars and turmoil of modern Mexico it would be Mendoza. So when I say he is not easy to read I urge you not to settle for a pale imitation, unless you just want adventure, and don’t let the complex style put you off. It takes a while to get the flow of Mendoza’s narrative; this is not a quick read, you have to concentrate but ultimately there is a truth in his novels that exposes life in the troubled city of Caliacán. For me that socio-political context elevates Name of the Dog – this serious literary crime fiction. Silver Bullet, The Acid Test and now Name of the Dog present a fictional interpretation of the Sinaloa region and the wider country that really did give you a feel for the people, place and events. It comes from the heart, Caliacán is Mendoza’s home city.

Name of the Dog is set in the heart of Sinaloa, Mexico, in 2007. The government has launched a new war on the drug cartels and the death toll on the streets is mounting: “That night the toll rose by another twenty-seven and counting.”

Frankly it’s hard to find a journalist who is prepared to file a report or a paper prepared to print it, let alone find anyone who cares. Still the dead pile up, daily the bodies are found on the streets of the city; murder, drugs and corruption are the key elements of Detective Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta’s world.

As a field agent of long service Señor Ugarte provides an analysis of the street situation. At a secret meeting in the Guadalajara Hilton his political masters demand more of Ugarte, reporting is no longer enough. The government wants to strike a decisive blow in the fight against the drug gangs. Of course, that is not easy given that government ministers are as likely to be on the cartel payroll as the mules who work for the drug kingpins. The cartels are regrouping and reacting to the government clamp down, new alliances are being forged. Ugarte has to infiltrate the next kingpin meeting and access intel that will enable the government to win the war on drugs. Ugarte doesn’t see an end game, things are unlikely to play out this way, on the other hand, he has never said no to General Alvarado, a man he believes he owes so much. When Ugarte was fired from the army the general took care of him, employing him as a special agent in the field. So, Ugarte agrees to the mission. He has to figure out how to persuade Samantha Valdés, Pacific Coast boss, to get him in the door. Hector Ugarte is dying, terminal prostate cancer, it’s a matter of months, so this will be his last job for the general. When a murder ignites even more bloodshed Mendieta will have to solve the crime to calm the situation.

Meanwhile, Lefty Mendieta recognises the young man who turns up on his doorstep, this is his son, it’s obvious, even though Susana Luján, the mother, never told him about the boy. Mendieta is proud, it’s a positive thing and he is determined to make a difference in Jason’s life – only, he isn’t keen on the boy’s interest in following him into the police. Now Susana is back in his life Mendieta is keen to rekindle the old flame.

However, back to the day job, someone has got it in for local dentists. Mendieta and his capable deputy Zelda Toledo find Dr. Humberto Manzo Salida has been shot through the heart, he also has a couple of bullets in the stomach apparently administered after he was killed. Constantino Blake Herñandez is the obvious suspect, he lost the girl he was in love with to the dentist. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.

Bloody and at times gruesome, this is as close to the real thing as you are likely to get reading fiction. These streets are alive with danger and duplicity. There is a great mix between the private affairs of Mendieta and the murder investigation he is running, also a clever combination of the major strands to the story, a superb convergence at the denouement.

Slightly surreal, occasionally funny but mostly dark. The head of the Pacific Cartel says to Mendieta: “….there are demons on the loose and plenty of bullets to be shot. I thought you could control them. I’d love to, but not all of them live in my hell; besides, the young punks are running free and loving it.”

This gives you some idea of the background but also the sentence structure of the novel. Clearly the cartel leader and Mendieta are in dialogue but the punctuation is sparse. As I said this is not an easy read, the sentences are sometimes opaque you have to concentrate, Mendoza makes few concessions for the reader. Half images need to be interpreted. It’s a bit like James Ellroy once you have the rhythm of the writing style it’s a very rewarding read. Admirably translated by Mark Fried.

This is the very bloody heart of Mexican gangland society; drugs wars, state sponsored murder and random violence. Mendoza has been referred to as “the Godfather of Narco-lit” (a great epithet) but that shouldn’t mask the seriousness of his intent. It isn’t just that the streets and the people seem real, it’s the gun battles and violence that ring true also – no glorification. This is unvarnished, brutal and nasty – no glamour and that’s as it should be. Even though the novel is violent, it is thoughtful and considered.

Lefty Mendieta says that you can’t afford a private life or at least can’t afford to be seen with one if you are a policeman, his new found son makes that a lot harder. He’s an introverted man, struggling with the all pervasive corruption and a convoluted personal life and that seems in character with living as a policeman in the middle of a narco-war. Still, he is the best man for the job.

Name of the Dog is a superior police procedural, full of sharp observations and echoes of the decay in Mexican society. It follows on from Mendieta’s previous outings investigating the death of a notorious stripper in The Acid Test and the murder of a lawyer in Silver Bullet. There is a lot of good Mexican crime writing out there (see our feature on Mexico from last month), but even in a strong field Name of the Dog is a class act.

Paul Burke 4/3

Name of the Dog by Elmer Mendoza
MacLehose Press 9780857052636 pbk Feb 2018

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