Why Sherlock Holmes Wouldn’t Survive in Latin America
Translated from the Spanish by Alicia Lopez
An already-violent context makes for a poor stage on which to set a crime novel. Three men hung from a bridge; a family massacred in their sleep; eight bodies found in a ditch, their hands tied and their figures distorted by torture: all a week’s worth of headlines in the Mexican press.
Writing a crime novel in a country where crime has taken public life hostage is a challenge. Rattling readers grown accustomed to an incessant dribble of deaths — a dribble that amounts to a hundred thousand corpses in a decade of war against drug trafficking — is truly daunting.
It takes talent to bait a reader with the conjured machinations of a serial killer. The portentous deductive skills with which Sherlock Holmes and Kurt Wallander indict cabbies and butlers seem like inoffensive antics in an environment where hitmen comfortably operate in broad daylight.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Conan Doyle, Henning Mankell, and Paula Hawkins don’t sell in Mexico or Colombia. But in our countries, their narratives morph into exercises in science fiction: terse plots entirely alien to our experiences and unimaginable in our own streets, wardrobes, and bedrooms.
The difficulties are even greater when a Latin American author attempts to set a crime novel in her own city. Successfully situating The Girl on the Train in Caracas, Bogotá, or Mexico City would be a feat; doing so with a classic police novel à la Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or even a more modern one by the likes of Michael Connelly, would be a prodigious accomplishment.
First, this is due to the lack of credibility detectives inspire in Latin America, whether it be policemen or private investigators. A constable as a hero figure simply does not work in Mexico. An incorruptible judiciary system capable of investigating those in power and of bringing them to justice is improbable at best. Our cop would be fired minutes after beginning his investigation on the head of a local mafia, a man who most likely is comfortably nestled under the protection of local authorities. And in the hypothetical case in which an honorable police agent is able to uncover crime and corruption, the chances of a jury ruling against an important criminal or drug lord are, frankly, quite slim.
Having exhausted our policeman’s chances of success, we can still turn to the figure of the private investigator, right? But no matter how brave and intelligent, or even how much of a Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe reincarnate our character might be, three days after starting his inquiry he will surely turn up dead in a ditch.
The fiends that roam our lands freely don’t pay a price for committing murder and thus have little reason to attempt secrecy. The frequency with which crimes are committed against journalists is symptomatic: half of the violence is inflicted by politicians and the authorities while the other half is dealt out by organized crime — according to data from Article 19, an international organization that defends freedom of opinion.
A mayor or governor can get rid of an inconvenient journalist with relative ease: hiring a hitman is cheap and accessible, and attributing the pesky journalist’s death to a Narco is an impregnable alibi. With that toe tag, the victim enters the immense body bag of those killed in the endless war of organized crime.
Mystery is harder to sustain when murder becomes a low-cost commodity. Why would I lose sleep over the blonde art dealer murdered on page 23, if just this week ninety people from my city were killed and the forty-three missing students from Iguala haven’t yet been found? Of course, it’s not impossible. A death toll that surpasses two digits tends to become a statistic, but one could turn a victim into the sister or lover we never had and transform the tragedy into good prose. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t simple.
What is even more difficult, though, is to keep our hero alive. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t survive in Mexico, unless of course he struck a bargain with his coke dealer. But that’s a whole other story.
Jorge Zepeda Patterson is the author of three political thrillers, including Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World, which has recently been released in English translation by Restless Books. His detective is an entity composed by four friends, all of whom are all still alive.