Mysteries in Mexico

Crime fiction in Mexico is a very unusual genre in that it is a literature of pessimism and antiheroes. The first Mexican mysteries appeared in the 1940s and 1950s but the great explosion in popularity occurred in the 70s and 80s. Mexican writers were, and are, heavily influenced by American writers such as Hammett and Chandler but have also developed a distinctive style of their own. True to the Hispanic mystery tradition police and authorities are distrusted and considered corrupt. Societal disorder or chaos is assumed to be the normal condition and the heroes, or rather antiheroes, are not obligated to restore order but rather to parody and satirize its absence. Frequently the mystery is turned upside down and the police or authorities are the "bad guys" whereas the criminals are the "good guys". Mexico City (the Federal District) is overwhelmingly their setting for Mexican stories but Mexican writers have a distinct gift for describing the settings with skill and color.

The first indigenous Mexican mystery appears to be one by Alfonso Quiroga — Vila y milagros de Pancho Reyes, detective Mexicano — but a complete citation with date of publication has been impossible to find. Most specialists consider the modern Mexican mystery genre to begin with Rodolfo Usigli’s Ensayo de un crimen, published in 1944 (republished by V. Siglos, Mexico City, 1980). Usigli taught at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and it was his only detective novel. It set a standard, however, in that the primary protagonist —Roberto de la Cruz- is a dandy who aspires to commit the perfect set of crimes. His dastardly deeds are solved by a police inspector but yet he goes unpunished, reflecting Mexican cynicism concerning justice.

In the 1930s and 40s magazines and periodicals appeared that chronicled real crime cases in Mexico — Magazine de policia; Detectives: Semanario policiaco y al hechos diversos; and Policia. In 1940 Atlantida Editiones began publishing Novela policiaca; El mundo de crimen, a weekly journal carrying primarily stories in translation. By the 1950s, a series entitled Policiaca y de Misterio was started by Editorial Novaro that published Mexican-authored stories, including those of one of the pioneers of the genre, Antonio Helu. Helu’s short stories were later collected in La obligacion de asesinar (Mexico, Novaro, 1957)). He also wrote a comedic detective play with Adolfo Bustamente entitled El crimen de los Insurgentes: comedia policiaca en tres actos ), Mexico, Sociedad General de Autores de Mexico, 1951). He created a number of detectives that were eventually distilled into Maximo Roldan who was part sleuth and part thief — a very flawed hero. Helu again illustrates the hostility of the Mexican to wealth and authority. Helu also founded the detective story magazine Selecciones policiacos de misterio.

Jose Martinez de la Vega published a collection of short stories — Peter Perez, detective de Peralvillo y anexas ( Mexico City, J. Mortiz, 1993) in which an honest and funny detective solves crimes the police cannot and, in the process, criticizes the police, the ruling political party and government corruption. Another collection of his detective’s adventures appeared in Aventuras del detective Peter Perez (Mexico, Plaza y Valdez, 1987). Enrique Gual also published three crime narratives in the 1940s and also introduced Sherlock Holmes to Mexican readers in installments between 1952 and 1953 via the publication Editorial Albatros.

The first lady of Mexican mysteries was Maria Elvira Bermudez, a lawyer, critic, and novelist who published a number of collections of detective stories including Diferentes razones tiene la muerte (Mexico, Plaza y Valdes, 1987), and Muerta a la raza (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1987). She also produced Los mejores cuentos policiacos Mexicanos, (Mexico, Libra Mex, 1955) Her Agatha Christie-like stories starred a detective who was a journalist employing somewhat traditional deductive skills to solve crimes in brilliantly portrayed Mexican settings.

One of the most important early authors was Rafael Bernal who published El complot Mongol - The Mongol Plot- (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1969). Bernal was a diplomat and writer who created a true antihero — Filiberto Garcia- an unsavory, unethical, government-paid assassin. The novel is really an espionage novel, very xenophobic, popular, and influential. Bernal also wrote Un muerto en la tumba: novella policiaca (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1946) in the Chesterton style with a clever priest as the sleuth.

A number of Mexican writers who only tangentially concerned themselves with crime fiction but were somewhat important to the development of the genre include Vincente Lenero, Jorge Ibarguengoitia, and Jose Emilio Pacheco. Lenero, a playwright and journalist, wrote a number of important enigmatic thrillers including Estudio Q (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1965) that was made into a film in 1981. He also wrote the prize-winning Los albaniles (Barcelona, Editorial Seix Barral, 1964). Most of his work was characterized by a lack of solutions to crimes and emphasized the inequality of Mexican society. Jorge Ibarguangoitia, another playwright and theatre critic, wrote two detective novels — Las muertas (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1977: translated and published in English as Dead Girls by Avon, N.Y., 1983) and Dos crimenes (Mexico J. Mortiz, 1979: translated and published in English as Two Crimes by David Godine, N.Y. and Boston, 1984). The former was a rather surreal novel but both were filled with humor. He also wrote a fascinating piece entitled "Agatha Christie: An unlikely Obituary" for the Literary Review (Vol. 38, #1, Feb., 1994). Pacheco, a poet, wrote an experimental detective novel — Moriras lejos (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1967; translated and published in English as You Will Die in a Distant Land, by the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla., 1991). He also published three collections of stories of some note (La sangre de Medusa, Mexico, Libraria de M. Porrua, 1958), El viento distante (Mexico, Editiones Eco, 1963) and El principio del placer (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1972).

The prolific mainstream author Carlos Fuentes contributed an espionage novel — Cabeza de la hidra (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1978: translated and published in English as The Hydra Head, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, N.Y., 1978) heavily influenced by Bernal’s El complot Mongol. The hero, a detective of Jewish and Mexican descent battles for Mexican oil among a number of foreign enemies.

One of the most influential Mexican mystery writers of all time is Paco Ignacio Taibo II who has won the Hammett Award for Spanish Language Novels three times. His main character — Hector Belascoaran Shayne- is one of the world’s most famous detectives. He is an alcoholic, police-hating, resenter of government corruption. He, like Sherlock Holmes, was killed off by his creator but resuscitated again by popular demand. Many of his novels have been translated into English including Cosa facil (An Easy Thing, Viking, N.Y., 1990), Sombra de la sombra (Shadow of the Shadow, Viking, N.Y., 1991), Algunes nubes (Some Clouds, Viking, N.Y., 1992), Bicicleta de Leonardo (Leonardo’s Bicycle, Mysterious press, 1995), Cuatro manos (Four Hands, Picador, N.Y., 1995), Vida misma (Life Itself, Mysterious Press, N.Y., 1994), Regresso a la cuidad y bajo la lluvia (Return to the Same City, Mysterious press, N.Y., 1996) and De paso (Just Passing Through, Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, Texas, 2000). Taibo’s novels are extraordinarily popular and reflect his passionate left-wing , anti-authority beliefs and are very much in the antihero tradition.

Other contemporary authors include Rolo Diez, an Argentine-born, hard-boiled specialist who penned Los companeros ( La Plata, Argentina, 1987) Vladimir Illich contra los uniformados (Vitoria, Ikusgar, 1997), Paso del tigre (Mexico, Grupo Editorial Z, 1991), Una baldosa en el valle de la Muerte (Guadalejara, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992), and the Hammett prize-winning Luna de escarlata (Mexico, Roca, 1994). Juan Hernandez Luna is a young author who won the Hammett Prize and has authored, with others, a collection of short stories — Crucigrama (Mexico, Instituto Politecnico Nacional, 1990) and a few novels including Tabaca para El Prima (Mexico, Roca, 1996.

Guillermo Zambrano is a journalist who has published two hard-boiled novels — Los crimenes de la calle del Seminario (Mexico, Oceano, 1987) and Los secretos de " El paraiso" (Mexico, Roca, 1994). One of the few contemporary distaff mystery writers — Myriam Laurini is an Argentine-born Mexican who has contributed such titles as Morena en rojo (Mexico, J. Mortiz, 1994) and Nota roja 70s: le cronica policiaca en la ciudad de Mexico (Mexico, Diana, 1993).

Mexican mysteries are truly different and reflect a society in distress. One of the most ardent promoters and defenders of crime fiction in Mexico was the prominent author and literary luminary Alfonso Reyes who may have most accurately summed up the role of the mystery in Mexico. He wrote, "In a society that is corrupt, where sarcasm and hypocrisy thrive and power is monopolized, detective literature exposes the inequities and the iniquity." Crime fiction is indeed a literature adapted to the needs of this troubled country.


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