An infinite city, one of the biggest in the world, a fascinating blanket of lights for those arriving on planes..A city gone crazy with pollution, rain, traffic; an economic crisis that’s been going on for twenty-five years. A city famously notable for the strangest reasons: …for having the most diverse collection of jokes about death; for setting the record for most political protests in one year; for having two invisible volcanoes and the most corrupt police force on the planet…

So reads Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s introduction to Mexico City Noir (2010), a recent addition to the growing city-noir collection published by Akashic.  It is a stunning collection of short stories that continue, not just the excellent Akashic Noir series, but also the novela negra sub-genre.  In today’s post, I’d like to examine the development of the noir novel (novela negra) across the Spanish speaking world.

Ernest Mandel, a Marxist theorist, argued that the evolution of the hardboiled detective fiction genre is directly linked to the development of professional crime.  In Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Novel (1985) he concluded that the growth, in the US, of professional crime syndicates during the prohibition era in the 1920s was so fast, and so thorough that it permeated every aspect of legitimate society, from lawmakers to law enforcers.  The consequence of this was that the public grew disenchanted with a formal police force which it saw as being in the pocket of the crime syndicates.  The public wanted an alternative.  Operating independently, and under the radar, the freelance private detective’s time had come. His transition from reality into literary fiction came about, so Mandel argued because the credibility of the US Federal Government was strained following a string of broken post-depression era promises.  Similar disenchantment was also being felt across Latin America in the form of social injustices and political corruption. Once established as a literary force in the US the hardboiled detective soon spread to Mexico, and in the latter part of the twentieth century the genre took hold as totalitarian regimes in Spain and Cuba started to collapse.

There are three very clear social triggers we can point to in order to understand the rise of novela negra.  In Mexico City the slaughter of student activists just prior to the 1968 Olympic Games, the social and economic chaos in Spain following the death of Franco, and the failure of the Cuban revolution which was ultimately made worse by the break up of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s political and trading mentor.  The outpouring of literary content that these events provoked is extraordinary.  Given legitimacy by these events the novela negra genre quickly established itself as a literary heavyweight.  There are too many excellent examples of the genre to mention all of them, but here are three writers that show it at its very best.

  • In 1969, the year after the student massacre in Mexico City, Rafael Bernal published El complot mongol (The Mongolian Plot).  It heralded the start of novela negra in Mexico and it features hardboiled detective Filiberto Garcia who fights to thwart a plot to kill the US President who is visiting Mexico.  Filiberto is cast from the same mould as his American counterparts and both he, and the front cover of the book are pure noir.
  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II (who wrote the introduction referenced above) has given us a series of novelas negras featuring Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, a half-Irish, half-Basque, one-eyed detective.  Taibo was born in Spain in 1949 but fled to Mexico as a boy when his family escaped the Franco regime.  He returns to his home town in Spain each year to organise the Semana Negra (Noir Week) festival and he is a giant of the novela negra and political novel scenes.  His Belascoarán Shayne series started in 1976 and continues to this day.  Of particular note is An Easy Thing (1977) in which Belascoarán Shayne is told that Revolutionary idol Emiliano Zapata, a real-life Mexican icon, did not die at the Hacienda de San Juan in 1919 as thought.  Instead, he is still alive and lives in a cave just outside Mexico City…how good does that sound?
  • Spanish writer Manuel Vásquez Montalbán created a hardboiled series set in post-dictatorship Spain.  His protaganist Pepe Carvalho is perpetually disillusioned with the transition from Franco’s regime to modern democracy.  In fact, the transition provides a constant backdrop to the books in which he appears.  Montalbán was a prolific journalist and political commentator and the Carvalho series runs to over 20 novels which have been published in nearly 25 languages.  The first novel, written in 1972, is called Yo maté a Kennedy (I killed Kennedy).

The novela negra genre, like so many, is more than a collection of fictional stories and characters.  It represents something much deeper.  It represents a growing resentment, disillusionment and desire to rage against many of the social and political injustices felt across Spain and Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century.  Read this, from Some Clouds (2002), a Héctor Belascoarán Shayne novel.  It sums novela negra up perfectly.

They watched the rain and downed their Cokes like a pair of diabetics in a suicide pact.  “Listen, Paco, dammit” said Hector, crushing out his last Delicado in the metal ashtray.  “Me detective, me big shit… I can’t tell you how pissed off I get watching them carve up this country, turning everything into a pile of shit.  I’m as Mexican as the next guy….I didn’t read Ché until I was thirty, and then only because I was locked inside a house where there was nothing else to read.

Novela negra at its very best.

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