Spanish Language Mysteries

The Spanish-speaking world provides an excellent example to begin an exploration into the foreign realms of the mystery genre. Poe's innovation spread from America to Europe, especially to Great Britain and France, but was also adopted in Spain very early. The first home-grown, original Spanish mystery was produced by Pedro de Alarcon in 1853 - 12 years after Poe! The short story, "The Nail," was a type of police procedural in which the detective/magistrate is the lover of the murderess who has killed her husband by driving a nail into his head (it is available only in Spanish in Pedro Antonio de Alarcon's, "El clavo y otros relatos de misterio y crimen," ["The nail and other stories of mystery and crime"] Barcelona, Editorial Fontamara, 1982).

The mystery form rather quickly recrosses the Atlantic to be adopted in Argentina where Paul Graussoc in 1884 published The Golden Lock, set in Buenos Aires. In Latin America, Argentine writers dominated the scene and the mystery achieved a rather sophisticated form. It reached a remarkable level of popularity especially under the leadership of the late Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine poet and intellectual. His superb Don Isidro Parodi stories are wonderful "parodies" of the normal detective story, filled with humor, and defying all rules of the genre (Borges, Jorge Luis, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, NY, Dutton, 1981).

By the early 20th Century the mystery as a literary form diffused throughout Latin America. By the end of the colonial period and especially after WWII the mystery became firmly established as a "political literature", a vehicle for political protest. The traditional rules for writers are largely ignored and, often as not, the police and the authority of the state are the villains. The detective or hero seeks justice for the oppressed where the established order is frequently the oppressor. This "upside-down" form is very prevalent throughout the region and especially today in Mexico. An excellent overview of the genre in Latin America can be found in Amelia S. Simpson's Detective Fiction from Latin America (Farleigh Dickenson Press, N.J., 1990).

One of the most prolific and interesting Latin writers today is Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a Mexican. His, Life Itself (Mysterious press, NY, 1995), follows the travails of a famous crime writer who is cajoled into taking the position of police chief in a corrupt Mexican town, the assumption being that his fame will protect the town from the villainous state authorities. With wonderful sardonic wit and anti-establishment righteousness he takes on the thugs who represent state authority and sets about to solve the murder of an American woman. The ending is classically Latin American and, for most of us, very unorthodox. It is difficult to label this novel except as a caricature of a police procedural. Clearly the political content overrules any standard formulas. Taibo published a very representative and clever piece in the Armchair Detective entitled "So when was it that this guy Medardo Rivera killed this guy Lupe Barcenas?" (The Armchair Detective, Vol.26, #3, 1993).

There are, of course, a large number of excellent mystery writers in Latin America, most of whom will never be well known in the U.S. because of the language barrier. For a taste of some refreshing Latin voices consult The Literary Review (Fall, 1994, Vol. 38, No.1). This issue is a special number entitled, "Latin America: Private Eyes and Time Travelers", guest edited by Ilan Stavans. The stories contained therein are worth the time to peruse if only to identify some of the best current writers in the region.

Reaching back to the Iberian origins of Latin mysteries I must mention the recent novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte. This work, The Flander's Panel (Bantam, N.Y., 1996), takes place in contemporary Madrid where the heroine, a restorer of classical paintings, is confronted with a murder depicted in a 15th century painting of a chess match. The principals, a duke, his wife and a knight, reach across five centuries in search of the murderer of the knight and, in the process, death strikes again. It is a literary gem and a must read for those interested in chess and the history of European art. One of the most popular Spanish mystery writers is Manuel Vazquez Montalban, creator of Pepe Carvalho, a sharp, gourmet tec.

He is the author of a number of translated mysteries (e.g. Murder in the Central Committee, Serpent's Tail, London, 1996) and he has won awards for his work in Spain, France and the United States.

I hope you enjoy these comments and recommendations. Your reactions and suggestions are welcome and I do look forward to hearing from you. Until the next "place," I urge you to read across the borders and enter new worlds.


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