Guest Star

The Dead Body Politic

The mystery of Mexico City needs a private eye.The adage has it that truth is stranger than fiction. I swear that’s true in Mexico. One of my favourite writers, hardboiled crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, has to struggle to keep up with the absurd plot of his beloved nation. Although Taibo is a fine writer, I come to him more for his cynical but humanist view of Mexican society, which lends itself perfectly to the private eye genre.

A survivor of the government-ordered massacre of hundreds of students and others on the eve of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Taibo weaves his leftist, bittersweet political enthusiasms into his work. His stories, with the familiar structure of a private dick novel and crackling, humorous dialogue, are richer for their entirely three-dimensional view take on Mexican politics and a society with a few winners and many losers.

While several of Taibo’s novels are available in English, I’ve only come across one really good translation of a book from the series starring Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his Mexico City private eye. In Frontera Dreams (from El Paso, Texas-based Cinco Puntos Press, 1990), Bill Verner fluidly transmits the tough, witty dialogue and uniquely Mexican idioms, leaving liberal sprinklings of Spanish throughout the text. It makes for an irresistible introduction to a writer who is deservedly famous in the Spanish-speaking world (Taibo is also the founder of an uproarious, anarchistic crime fiction and film festival, Semana Negra, that takes place every year in his hometown of Gijon, Spain).

In Frontera Dreams, Héctor leaves the violent security of the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) that is his usual stomping ground, and heads north to the border in his pursuit of a woman he once loved, now disappeared: Natalia Smith-Corona, a movie star he knew when they were both schoolkids.

By this point in the series, Héctor has been shot, stabbed, slashed, beaten, killed, blatantly resurrected (when the author succumbed, like Sherlock Holmes’ Conan Doyle, to popular outrage), and left with a limp and just one eye. Just as the Mexican republic has suffered and suffers from a ridiculous excess of revolutions, political upheaval, and street crime, so too do Héctor’s injuries require willing suspension of disbelief.

Searching for Natalia at the U.S.-Mexico border, the detective feels cut off from his mother city, and Taibo describes it with his typically intimate, frustrated, cynical and poetic voice: “how far from his electric and dusty turf, how infuriatingly far from the homeland, from the profoundly insecure insecurity of its bastard streets, from its familiar, and — as such — friendly, mercurial light.” Nevertheless, there is a mystery to be solved and a fucked-up social system to navigate.

Needless to say, Héctor finds the lady. Along the way, we meet labourers, narcos, illegal immigrants, coyotes (migrant smugglers), Chicanos and Anglos. And Héctor returns, alone as ever, to his melancholy, philosophical contemplation of a Mexico still groping its one-eyed way forward in the shadow of the 1968 massacre.

As Verner explains in his translator’s note, Héctor has (beginning in the first novel, not available in English) left “his wife, his job and his middle-class life of desperate safety to become a Mexican private eye. In doing this, he chooses the dual weapons of absurdity and curiosity as the way to grapple with his city and its role in his country’s future.”

Héctor hasn’t made an appearance recently (his latest English sally is Return to the Same City, 1997). Luckily for readers, and Mexicans in general there’s still a need for a curious, existential Mexican detective. All the murder, mayhem and that sad feeling of political/economic/social alienation remain very Mexico 2006.

In the last twelve months, numerous absurd and sad real-life events have taken place that seem lifted from the casebook of a Mexican private eye. In January, police captured the Mataviejitas (“Little Old Lady-killer”), a serial killer who strangled perhaps dozens of old women in Mexico City over the past decade. She turned out to be a woman, a wrestling fan and a former wrestler, the “Silent Lady.” Then there are the still unsolved, bloody murders of a Canadian couple in Cancún — the ever-bumbling, ever-corrupt police have no answers, but launched lukewarm accusations against two Northern Ontario women. Also this winter, a well-known journalist, Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, was kidnapped, held without charges and released. A wiretap incriminated the governor of the state of Puebla in her detention, but the clever chap claimed, ludicrously, that his enemies had faked his voice.

Just before elections in July and after years of foot-dragging, the PAN government suddenly ordered the arrest of the former president known to have ordered snipers to fire on that crowd of unarmed students back in ’68. At the same time, they portrayed the populist PRD party as rabble-rousers and threats to public safety — this despite the crazy levels of crime in the country under the PAN’s watch, the corruption so widespread among police and government officials, the regular irregularities in the way laws are applied, and the various murderous government campaigns against guerillas and peasants. What happened was just the sort of sad twist that drives Héctor to drink. The PAN won the July 2nd federal elections, by a much-disputed hair. The public opinion job done, they quickly let the ex-president go without facing trial for his crimes.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne can continue his bemused and (he knows it) hopeless quest for justice and resolution, because the line between politics and crime is thinner than a blade.


Our Guest Star this month is Carlyn Zwarenstein, a mystery lover who spends substantial time in the absurd and wonderful metropolis of Mexico City.

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