Crime Scenes

Latin American Crime Fiction from the 1960s to the 2010s

by Charlotte Lange (Volume editor) Ailsa Peate (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection X, 244 Pages


Crime fiction has become a key element in Latin American literature. The rise in production of the genre can be explained by an urgency to explore issues of morality in societies which incorporate varying levels of censorship and corruption. Through a focus on the concept of the crime scene itself, this book identifies and interrogates some of the principal developments in contemporary Latin American crime fiction. In ten chapters which cover Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela, and generic diversity which spans police procedurals, narcoliteratura, postmodern detection, and historical portrayals of crimes, the authors investigate how the crime scene – which has always been central to the genre and its subgenres – critiques local and global issues, including social injustice, discrimination, neoliberalism, violence, identity, corruption, and memory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Crime Scenes in Latin America’s novela negra (1960s–2010s) (Charlotte Lange / Ailsa Peate)
  • 1 Avenging Assassins: Women and Power in Rosario Tijeras (1999) by Jorge Franco and La Reina del Sur (2002) by Arturo Pérez Reverte (Pascale Baker)
  • 2 What Happens in Clipperton …: Criminality and Trauma in Isla de pasión (1989) by Laura Restrepo and Isla de bobos (2007) by Ana García Bergua (Niamh Thornton)
  • 3 That’s Funny: Mexican Crime Fiction According to Jorge Ibargüengoitia (Charlotte Lange)
  • 4 Collective Culpability in Costa Rica: The Case of Quince Duncan’s Kimbo (Liz Harvey-Kattou)
  • 5 Cracking Up: Interpreting the Crime Scene(s) in Claudia Piñeiro’s Las grietas de Jara (Fiona Mackintosh)
  • 6 Map-Maker Most Foul: Rodolfo Walsh’s ‘Cartas’ and the Geography of Crime (David Conlon)
  • 7 Roberto Ampuero and the Neruda Case: The Detective, the Poet, the ‘Converso’ (Philip Swanson)
  • 8 Havana Noir: Space and Memory in Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde Detective Series (Diana Battaglia)
  • 9 Disturbing Scenes in Amir Valle’s Detective Series El descenso a los infiernos (Ailsa Peate)
  • 10 Scenes from the Most Violent City in the World: Caracas muerde and Muerte en el Guaire (Katie Brown)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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Introduction: Crime Scenes in Latin America’s novela negra (1960s–2010s)

This collection seeks to develop knowledge on a popular genre situated within a geographical area which is frequently associated with civil unrest, human rights abuses and violence, but whose cultural production above all in relation to the crime genre has been frequently overlooked as a revelatory genre which draws a multitude of Latin American countries together. Through a focus on authors both popular, new to the scene, and lesser-known, this collection aims to deepen the understanding of crime fiction in Latin America from the 1960s to the 2010s. Spanning novels produced in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Venezuela, this book connects the works through the theme of crime scenes in order to deepen knowledge on the crime novel in countries which are not, on an international level, necessarily associated with its production.

Contemporary crime fiction, including that produced in Hispanic countries, is widely seen as having its roots in the North American hard-boiled genre of the 1940s (see Hart 1987, Godsland 2007, Nichols 2011 and Oakley 2012). These narratives relied on particular plot devices and characteristics such as the lone detective situated on the margins of legality, the dangerous woman as embodied by the femme fatale, whose self-serving greed and emasculating licentiousness threaten and distract the detective, and had a focus on the search for truth within a cynical society. This genre, first produced during a period of major social upheaval after the Wall Street Crash, displayed US society on a bleak, black canvas (Hart 1987:14) and highlighted socio-cultural disillusionment. As a result, the genre has been said to constitute ‘often the first voice to respond to new societal and cultural encounters’ (Knight 2005: 25), meaning that the genre lends itself well to such extensive criticism and investigation. Due to this ← 1 | 2 → preoccupation with socio-political injustices, we understand that writers of detective fiction can often be interpreted as producing committed writing, and deem the primary authors investigated in this work to be committed writers as they are inherently motivated to their work by the cause of societal injustices.

Crime scenes have always been central to the literature of crime and all its subgenres ranging from detective fiction, ‘whodunnits’, hard-boiled crime fiction, the police novel, or in more recent narcoliterature as produced in Latin America. Although it is not in the scope of this book to contend with the various denominations of detective fiction which are pre-existing in both English and Spanish language contexts, it is nevertheless important to demonstrate how and why the novels featured in this collection have been understood to form part of the crime fiction canon, despite exhibiting traits from other genres.

Various academics of detective fiction have considered the limitations of terminology with regards to the genre, with some preferring to avoid using any Spanish alternative to define the genre seen in Spain (Hart 1987: 14) and others maintaining a ‘flexible’ definition of that seen in Latin America, borrowing heavily from the North American archetype (Close 2006: 143–4). However, when considering such novels, Nichols maintains that a narrative with ‘violation, transgression and disillusion’ (2011: 8) at its core can be generally associated with Hispanic crime fiction, again similar to the works demonstrated in a post-Boom United States. Critics favour the following to refer to a spectrum of Hispanic subgenres, the most salient of which appear as the novela negra, which in this book we interpret as the closest translation of ‘hard-boiled’; the novela detectivesca as the detective novel and the novela policíaca as a translation of the police procedural, all forming what will be referred to as the género negro. Craig-Odders notes that the Hispanic género negro is particularly transgressive as a genre as there is no real accepted overarching terminology for its classification (2006: 5). Indeed, Pérez’s understanding of the ‘novela negra’ is one which demonstrates this fluctuating definition, as according to the crime fiction scholar, there are many ways in which a text could be considered to adhere to the broad requirements of the crime novel, classing his list of narrative is under the heading of ‘novela negra’, which can translate as anything ← 2 | 3 → as wide-ranging as ‘thriller’ to ‘police novel’ to ‘crime novel’ (2002: 11). Close also chooses to use the term ‘novela negra’ in order to permit himself ‘a certain flexibility in the definition of a field’ (2012: 143). Given the wide-ranging association of ‘novela negra’, this book uses the terms ‘crime fiction’ and ‘detective fiction’ where appropriate interchangeably to avoid significant repetition. This also allows for some flexibility when talking about the crime fiction previously and currently present in Latin America. On occasion, we use the terminology ‘hard-boiled detective fiction’ when referencing traits in the primary texts which correspond to North American noir, as made famous by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet. In these instances, specific reasoning is given behind this decision, often linked to the aesthetics of a text and the presence of specific characters such as the femme fatale.

The Evolution of the Latin American Crime Novel and Our Crime Scenes

Most often in examples from any of the subgenres of crime fiction, we are presented with the physical crime scene where an unlawful act was committed, which, as this collection continues to prove, takes on a symbolic meaning. Each of the chapters included in this work which focuses on Latin America provide an insight into scenes of crime, criminal activity or the crime genre, which are outlined as being significant for further investigation on both a local and a continental level, but which should not be understood as limited to a concrete location. In order to contextualize our crime scenes, it is necessary to outline the history of the genre in the Latin American countries which form the focus of this work.

Crime fiction in Latin America is understood to have appeared ‘at approximately the same time that hard-boiled detective fiction began to appear in Spain in the early 1970s’ (Craig-Odders 2006: 8). This widely accepted notion holds true for many Latin American countries but, as this collection shows, in the case of Mexico and Argentina, the origin of ← 3 | 4 → autochthonous and transgressive crime fiction dates back to the 1940s: Oakley notes that the genre’s first appearance in Latin America is in Argentina at this time (2012: 4). Borges and Bioy Casares began publishing detective fiction, their own as well as those of other Argentine authors, in their crime series Séptimo Círculo [Seventh Circle].1 Their first crime fiction collaboration, Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi [Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi] appears in 1942 under the pseudonym Bustos H. Domecq. Another noteworthy example of the Seventh Circle series is María Angelica Bosco’s La muerte baja en el ascensor [Death Goes Down in the Elevator] (1954), which won the Premio Emecé de Novela in the year of its publication and evidences the early importance of Argentine crime fiction in comparison to the later appearances of crime novels in other Latin American countries. In 1947, Antonio Helú, one of the founders of Mexican detective fiction, published La obligación de asesinar [The Obligation to Kill], followed by, amongst others, María Elvira Bermúdez’s crime novels such as Diferentes razones tiene la muerte [Death has Different Reasons] (1953). By the 1960s, Mexican crime fiction was well established and had caught the attention of renowned authors such as Vicente Leñero with Los albañiles [The Bricklayers] in 1964. Close maintains that ‘the emergence of the novela negra in Latin America coincides very closely with a moment of multiple crises throughout the region’ (2006: 147), which furthers Knight’s assertion that the genre can be understood as a reaction to previously unexperienced social developments (2005: 25). Close’s understanding of the appearance of the detective novel in Latin America, however, also demonstrates the differences between the new encounters found north and south of the Mexican border, elaborating that this moment ‘was defined generally by the exhaustion of the import-substitution model of State-direction modernisation, the resurgence of authoritarian military regimes in the Southern Cone and elsewhere, and the beginning of the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in nearly all countries’ (2006: 147). Simpson also elaborates on the differences between the driving force behind crime fiction from Latin America and the USA, ← 4 | 5 → explaining that ‘the development of detective fiction in Latin America is influenced not only by the rules of the marketplace, but also by what some authors perceive as the fundamental incompatibility of Latin American realities with the ideology codified in the structures and conventions of the predominant whodunit’ (1990: 17). As a result, hard-boiled detective fiction as we understand it from the USA has had influences on both structure, style, and content with regards to the production of the crime novel in Latin America during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This is not to say that authors from the region have necessarily always shied away from more traditional ‘enigma’ style crime novels, perhaps best exemplified by the works of Agatha Christie. For example, Jorge Luis Borges’s celebrated La muerte y la brújula [Death and the Compass] (1942) falls into this subgenre of crime fiction with little to no focus on societal disillusionment (Quesada 2012: 168). Furthermore, though the hard-boiled North American novel is most often referenced when critics explain the origins of the Latin American genre, given that translated versions of such texts were available in Latin America during the 1940s and 1950s, often with a greater focus on the enigma novel or texts translated into Spanish, it is also worth noting that testimonial literature in Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador made use of crime fiction structures, as according to Quesada ‘también se han apropiado de las técnicas, estrategias e ideología de la narrativa policial para escribir muchas de sus obras’ [They have also taken advantage of the techniques, strategies, and ideology of the police procedural to write many of their novels] (2012: 168, see also Kokotovic 2006: 16). However, as Lange shows in her chapter, the focus on Christie style mystery novels without clear engagement with social issues was criticized through parody in the 1970s by Mexico’s Jorge Ibargüengoitia. Therefore, at its most basic, the detective novel in Latin America can be understood as partially developing from the traditional hard-boiled detective novel, and is an example of what Richard sees as the cultural production of the ‘Periphery’ distancing itself from the ‘Center’ (1993). The parallels that one can draw from US crime fiction from the twentieth century in particular allow for various literary hybridizations which illustrate the richness, complexity, and originality of the Latin American crime fiction genre. ← 5 | 6 →

It is unsurprising that, in the wake of dictatorships, massacres, and latent modernization which coincided across the region, the realist genre of crime fiction became popular in the area. Simpson (1990: 21) surmizes that Latin American detective novels ‘express views about moral issues and social problems’, reaffirming the genre’s similarities to that produced in the USA by authors such as Hammet, Himes and Chandler from the 1930s onwards. Though Simpson’s statements remain pertinent to the study of detective fiction from the region and its historical development, and though the scholar raises relevant similarities and differences between the genre as found in the USA and more widely in Latin America, the work’s publication date in the early 1990s predates more recent major social and political developments in most Latin American countries which have had undeniable effects on cultural production, an important factor to recognize in this volume which includes analyses of examples published in the new millennium.

As already mentioned, Mexico’s history with crime fiction began in the 1940s, though popular hard-boiled detective fiction only really came to the fore in the 1970s, having had little to no domestic production previously (Craig-Odders 2006: 8). The first Mexican detective fiction authors, such as Antonio Helú and Rodolfo Usigli, were inspired by increasing industrialization and modernization in Mexico, which encouraged movement away from the countryside and towards cities, where concentrated populations saw a correlated increase in crime. Authors such as Helú and Usigli used the genre similarly to the American pioneers of the genre, using it as a tool to respond to new cultural encounters, such as rising crime rates and inadequate police forces. Usigli’s 1944 text Ensayo de un crimen [Rehearsal for a Crime] constituted scrupulous portraits of city life, engaging with and detailing the effects of modernization and expansion within Mexican society in the middle of the twentieth century. A surge of movement to cities and an obsession with the USA as an ideal society to emulate became widespread through Mexico through the media of radio and cinema (Navarrete Maya 2005: 55). Helú and Usigli oversaw a shift in Mexican detective fiction during this time, with a move away from a focus on the enigma text to novels whose contents were closer to that of hard-boiled detective fiction, featuring the lone detective and a seductive ← 6 | 7 → female character. However, the crimes in such novels were, according to scholarship on such authors, not clearly politically motivated – a key difference to the work produced by Rafael Bernal in 1969, El complot mongol [The Mongolian Conspiracy].

A pivotal point in Mexico’s recent history, the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, unearthed deep dissatisfaction with a corrupt PRI regime.2 As a vehicle through which to voice social disenchantment, Mexican crime fiction became increasingly critical of society, moving away from small-town detectives trying to deal with the effects of industrialization, and towards international conspiracies. For many, Bernal’s El complot mongol is evidence of the beginning of Mexican adaptations of the genre in order to discuss and highlight widespread societal discontent. Rodríguez Lozano recognizes that ‘La publicación en 1969 de El complot mongol de Rafael Bernal fue un punto culminante de un proceso que a lo largo de los años se ha afianzado gradualmente’ (2009: 9) [The publication of Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy was a turning point in a process which has consolidated itself over the years].

However, significant Mexican social theorists have previously contested the genre’s appropriateness to the country. Social theorist Carlos Monsiváis rejected claims for detective fiction’s pertinence within Mexico and Latin America more generally, declaring ‘¿A quién le importa quién mató a Roger Ackroyd … si nadie sabe (oficialmente) quién fue responsable de la matanza de Tlatelolco?’ [Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd … if nobody knows (officially) who was responsible for the killings at Tlatelolco?] (1973: 10). However, Monsiváis was disproven by a plethora of authors of the genre reacting to a corrupt government which stood accused of massacring up to 800 people during the Tlatelolco student protests. Braham makes an important point that after the 1960s, the movement of authors known as ← 7 | 8 → La Onda in Mexico ‘used literature to express this dissidence by violating traditional barriers between high and popular culture, author and reader, fiction and non-fiction’ (2004: 68). These features are common to the Mexican detective novel, which Stavans characterizes as ‘the daughter of La Onda’ (1993: 28). Though Monsiváis’s thesis may have been proven incorrect, nonetheless his reference to the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City in October 1968 concisely highlights the long-standing impunity which lies at the heart of Mexican politics, and the violence which is still exhibited in the country daily.

The Mexican detective genre has been made popular (to an extent, internationally)3 by authors such as Paco Ignacio Taibo II, whose Héctor Belascoarán series (1976–2005) saw the appropriation of the structures of the North American crime narrative – the lonely detective on the margins of legality, investigating in a bleak society, solving the case and exposing socio-political issues along the way. Nichols (2011) outlines how the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco and the effects of neoliberal policies have affected the popularity of such a genre in Mexico and Spain, claiming that the ‘social, political, and economic crises plaguing Mexico and Spain link directly to the disillusionment with a modernity that brings economic prosperity, although definitely not for all members of society’ (33). It is arguable that Mexico’s ongoing problems with the War on Drugs, violence and impunity are factors which have provided authors of detective fiction the ideal bleak background of disillusionment typically associated with the genre which they mutate. However, this does not mean that contemporary Mexican crime writers, despite witnessing ever increasing levels of violence, forget about past crimes, an example being Thornton’s chapter on Isla de bobos [Island of Fools] (2007) by Ana García Bergua, whose novel considers the crimes committed on Clipperton Island between 1914 and 1916, a crime scene at microcosmic level.

Colombia’s engagement with the crime genre is unlike that of Mexico, despite comparable exposure to the drug trade. The Colombian crime fiction ← 8 | 9 → scene has a more recent history with the crime novel and its associated subgenres, despite the country’s exposure to and involvement with violence. During the 1940s, the era during which some Latin American countries were beginning to experience the genre for the first time, Colombia was affected by civil war, sparked by the fall in coffee prices, and guerilla warfare. The Banana Massacre of 1928 came during a worker’s strike at the United Fruit Company, at which the army intervened, beginning a period of unrest in rural areas between the workers and the state, culminating in widespread violence across the country. The period following this became known as La Violencia [The Violence], and lasted for approximately twenty years. Examples of violence during this period included massacres and the common practice of mutilation of corpses. It is estimated that between 1946 and 1966, 200,000 Colombians were murdered, and 2 million others were compulsorily displaced from their homes (Roldán 2002: 5). Forced internal migration has been a consequence of sustained violence, and has contributed to the mass migration of rural Colombian populations to the city – a location where, as previously mentioned, hard-boiled crime novels are typically set due to the closer quarters at which populations live, as opposed to in the countryside – a trait which, in the context of La Violencia, has not been a trait which the Colombian crime fiction scene has experienced.

Violence and criminality became increasingly widespread in Colombia with the declaration of the right to bear arms in the aftermath of La Violencia. At this time, private entities were employed to protect landowners’ families and properties from invasion. This practice extended as guerrilla movements prospered through the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged by guaranteed impunity due to the complicity of the law and politicians (Sánchez 1992: 89–90). It is from this period onwards where most sicaresca [sicaresque, or assassin] novels begin to appear, coinciding with a period in which drug lords became increasingly prominent, ordering hits from their sicarios [hitmen].

As Pöppel (2010: 359) points out, although Colombia does have a history with crime fiction, the country came to producing and consuming stories about criminal activity later than countries such as Argentina and Mexico. García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada [Chronicle of ← 9 | 10 → a Death Foretold] (1981) is frequently cited as a particularly well-known novel from the country which plays on the genre’s tenets. Otherwise, as Simpson (1990) notes, countries such as Colombia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador remained somewhat divorced from the concept of the crime novel during the twentieth century. Close equally recognizes this, maintaining that ‘Colombia ha[d] no cohesive tradition in the [crime] genre’ until the late 1990s (2006: 151). Just as Monsiváis doubted the pertinence of police procedurals in a Mexico fraught with corruption, it appears that, according to Laura Restrepo (1950–, author of Isla de Pasión [Island of Passion]), ‘En Colombia no se puede escribir sobre detectives, sería gracioso. No se investiga porque todo el mundo sabe quién mata’ [You can’t write about detectives in Colombia, that would be funny. Nobody investigates because everyone knows who does the killing].4 Though Colombian authors such as Santiago Gamboa (1965–) and Gonzalo España (1945–) stand out on the Colombian literary scene, having been successful with their hard-boiled novela negra from the 1990s to present day, as previously mentioned, the preference for writing crime fiction in the country is one with a greater link to narcoliteratura, featuring sicarios and with a focus on the drugs trade and/or paramilitary groups, as seen, for example in the works of authors such as Jorge Franco (Rosario Tijeras, 1999), Laura Restrepo (Leopardo al sol [Leopard in the Sun], 1993) and Fernando Vallejo (La Virgen de los sicarios [Our Lady of the Assassins], 1994).


X, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
society subversion crime fiction Latin America
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Charlotte Lange (Volume editor) Ailsa Peate (Volume editor)


Title: Crime Scenes