Argentine Mysteries: Crime Fiction in the Latin Mode

Argentine writers were among the earliest adopters and adapters of the crime fiction genre. The authors, many of whom were, and are, members of the mainstream literati, created a popular, respected, and uniquely Argentine form of mystery. Stories are often characterized by black humor, parody, and criticism of the prevailing social, economic and political system. Many plots have no solution or ambiguous ones that are reflective of a society where good does not often triumph over evil. Often the authorities are the villains and state institutions are the oppressors – a situation that was prevalent especially during the rule of the dictatorial military regime from 1976 to 1983 when more than 30,000 Argentines disappeared.

As in most non-western countries the mysteries first arrived in Argentina via translations of writers such as Poe, Doyle and others. However, the form was eventually  adapted and fitted to Argentine culture  – the first short story was written by Paul Graussac in 1884 –“The Golden Lock” – (in Relatos Argentinos, V. Suarez, Madrid, 1922).  Often labeled Latin America’s Edgar Allen Poe, Horacio Quiroga, a native Uruguayan, wrote a number of short tales set in Misiones Province including The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1976) and The Exiles (Austin, University of Texas University Press, 2000). One of the first novels was published in 1940 – Con la guadana al hombro by Abel Mateo , aka Diego Keltibar , ( Maygu , Montevideo, 1940). He also wrote El detective original (Buenos Aires, Editorial Emece, 1956).  By the late 1930s a series, Colecion Misterio, was launched and by 1945 the crime fiction series, El Septimo Circulo, had been created by two of the most talented and influential Argentine writers – Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares. These two luminaries, in 1942, using the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq published the very famous Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (N.Y., E.P. Dutton, 1981). As the title suggests, the parody was superb – the hero, Don Isidro Parodi, solves crimes from  prison cell # 273! In the Foreword to this wonderful set of stories a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters writes, “What an uncommon pleasure it is … to savor a detective story that does not obey the rigid rules of a foreign Anglo-Saxon market.” There is little doubt that this innovative break from tradition characterizes much of  the Argentine genre but also influenced crime fiction around the globe.

Also in 1942, Jeronomo del Rey aka Leonardo Castellani, published Los nueve muertes del Padre Metri (Buenos Aires, Ediciones Sed, 1942). These stories were written in the style of Chesterton’s Father Brown tales but set in such regions as the Argentine Chaco. They were quintessentially Argentine and filled with local customs and color. In 1948. Manuel Peyrou, a physicist, poet and philosopher, published Thunder of Roses: A Detective Novel (N.Y. Herder and Herder, 1972), a parody and a work some experts consider the most brilliant detective novel in Spanish.  In the early 1950s Rodolfo Jorge Walsh, son of Irish immigrants and an investigative journalist, won a literary prize for a collection of three short novels – Variaciones en rojo (Buenos Aires, Libreria Hachette, 1953). He also published an anthology of Argentine detective stories – Diez cuentos policiales Argentinos (Buenos Aires, Libreria Hachette, 1953). Walsh later published a controversial best-seller based on an actual terror act committed by the State entitled Operacion Massacre (Buenos Aires, Planeta, 1957). In 1977 he was abducted by the authorities and murdered!

Jose Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares remained very active in the genre – writing, editing, publishing and especially influencing many young Argentine writers. Both men wrote prolifically in other genres and yet produced a number of crime fiction works including The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq (N.Y. Dutton, 1976); Los mejores cuentos policiales (Buenos Aires, Emece, 1962) : and Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq (Madrid, Ediciones Siruela, 1986). The extraordinary Borges wrote one of the most unique crime fiction short stories in “Muerte y de brujula” –“ Death and the Compass” – included in The Aleph and Other Short Stories. 1933-1969 (N.Y. E.P. Dutton, 1978). This astonishing piece is mysterious, complex and breaks the cardinal rule of mystery writing! All of Borges’ short stories are available in one volume – Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (N.Y. Viking, 1998). Bioy-Casares also published a collection of short stories entitled The Invention of Morel and Other Short Stories from La Trama Celeste ( Austin, University of Texas Press, 1964).

A number of women have also been active in the genre including Maria Angelica Bosco. Her La muerte en el ascensor ( Buenos Aires, Emece, 1982) and La muerte vino de afuera (Buenos Aires, Editorial Belgrano, 1982) are written in a classical style and very well done. An Italian immigrant, Syria Poletti, wrote a number of stories focused on the Italian immigrant population ( Linea de fuega, Buenos Aires, Editorial Losada, 1966). Luisa Valenzuela published a hard-boiled novel – Black Novel  (With Argentines ), ( Pittsburgh, Latin American Literary Review Press, 2002), an eerie psychological novel set in New York. She also wrote Strange Things Happen Here: Twenty Six Short Stories and a Novel ( N.Y., Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1979). Also some of her stories were published in Open Door: Stories (San Francisco, North Point Press, 1988) and in Symmetries:Stories (London, Serpent’s Tail, 1998).

The hard-boiled style spread to Argentina from the U.S., and stimulated by state instigated violence and crime in the period of government terror, became popular. Juan Carlos Onetti, a well-respected Uruguyuan writer who lived in Buenos Aires for more than a decade, depicts the absurdity of a protagonist’s battle against a corrupt and repressive system in Body Snatchers (N.Y., Pantheon, 1991), Let the Wind Speak (London, Serpent’s Tail, 1997) and Farewells : and A Grave With No Name (London, Quartel Books, 1992).  Ricardo Piglia adopted the hard-boiled style in his anti-authoritarian works including ‘La loca y el relato del crimen” in which his journalist hero states, “ I’ve been in this business for thirty years and if there is one thing I have learned it’s this: you don’t argue with the police. If they tell you that the Virgin Mary killed her, you write down the Virgin Mary killed her.” He also published Artificial Respiration (Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1994)  a superb and intellectually innovative work, and a collection of short stories entitled Assumed Name ( Pittsburgh, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1995). Osvaldo Soriano published a number of strongly anti- government stories in his Funny Dirty Little War   (N.Y., Readers International, 1986) and Winter Quarters : A Novel of Argentina (Columbia, La., Readers International, 1989). Ernesto Sabato published a number of important novels including On Heroes and Tombs (Boston, Godine, 1981) and The Tunnel (N.Y. Ballantine, 1988). Manuel Puig, a writer and motion picture scriptwriter gained international fame for his publication Kiss of the Spider Woman (N.Y., Vintage, 1991) that was adopted as a movie and a musical . He also published the Buenos Aires Affair: A Detective Novel ( N.Y., Dutton, 1976) and Mystery of the Rose Bouquet (Boston, Farber and Farber, 1988). Most of his work was pessimistic, dark, sexual and surreal. Other writers of the period include Jose Pablo Feinmann who reflects both the hard-boiled style and the more philosophical influence of Borges. He depicts a dehumanized and Kafkaesque society in Ultima dias de la victima (Buenos Aires, Ediciones Colihue, 1979) and Los crimenes de van Gogh (Buenos Aires, Planeta, 1994). Eduardo  Goligorsky, a science fiction writer, in “Orden jerarquico” produced a satirical story centered on Argentina’s class attitudes and values. A very active Argentine author, Mempo Giardinelli, has become very popular with some very violent but very intense novels. His Sultry Moon (Pittsburgh, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998) is an incredibly tension-packed, erotically violent, short novel reeking of the influence of Nabokov and Dostoyevsky.  Also available in English is his Tenth Circle  (Pittsburgh, Latin America Literary Review Press, 2001) which is equally violent. Juan Jose Saer’s Las pesquida (Buenos Aires, Seix Barrel, 1994), The Witness (London, Serpent’s Tail, 1990) and Nobody, Nothing, Never (London, Serpent’s Tail, 1993) are modernist works set in Santa Fe and are worthy contributions. Sergio Olguin produced an interesting volume based on police cases entitled Escritos con sangre: cuentos Argentinos sobre casos policiales ( Buenos Aires, Editorial Norma, 2003).

Crime fiction has flourished in Argentina, fostered by great writers, oppressive government, and the demand of a highly literate population. Thankfully these talented authors respect no literary boundaries and produce stories that stimulate the imagination, provide clear views of a society in pain, and blaze new trails in crime fiction. These mysteries set in Buenos Aires, the Pampas, El Chaco and other regions of the country are imaginative, creative, and rank among the world’s very best.

GJD

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