The Detective is Dead. Long Live the Novela Negra!

The Detective is Dead. Long Live the Novela Negra!

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Prepared for delivery at the 2004 Meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Las Vegas, Nevada, October 7-9, 2004

I should begin with my title. When I say “the detective is dead,” I don’t mean he’s literally dead, although occasionally, as at the conclusion of Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s No habrá final feliz (1981) or Rubem Fonseca’s Agosto (1990), that may indeed be the case.
By “dead” what I mainly mean is “functionally, hermeneutically, generically, historically superannuated,” “redundant,” “residual,” “spent”. What I’m attempting to do is to sensationalize my thesis, about which more soon. Stray detectives are still stalking around out there, dutifully pounding the pavement, busting heads, kicking in doors, and I’m sure that between us, on this panel, we could name at least one private eye residing, fictionally, in every major Latin American city. The novela negra is by now a recognizably fundamental component of the constellation of that Latin American novelistic production we may or may not consent to label “Post-Boom”. Yet how do we evaluate the viability of the private investigator protagonist in a Latin American fiction of realist and critical aspirations now, in 2004? Did the private eye perhaps go astray in the “Lost Decade” of the 1980s? Did neoliberalism and globalized crime achieve what
monopoly capitalism and Depression-era gangsters could not, did they put the P.I. down for the Big Sleep?
I specify “novela negra” in my title to allow myself a certain flexibility in the definition of a field, and if we consult Demetrio Estébanez Calderón’s Diccionario de términos literarios, this is how he defines it:

“Denominación que se aplica a un subgénero narrativo (relacionado con la novela policíaca), que surge en Norteamérica a comienzos de los años veinte, y en el que sus autores tratan de reflejar, desde una conciencia crítica, el mundo del gansterismo y de criminalidad organizada, producto de la violencia y corrupción de la sociedad capitalista de esa época.” (760) The Spanish term derives from the French roman noir, and although one English translation would be “hard-boiled detective novel”, the term is often equivalent to “crime novel”.1 In one of the few monographic studies of the genre published in Latin America, Mempo Giardinelli offers his own account of its features: “lo identificamos por su peculiar mecanismo de intriga, el realismo, un cierto determinismo social y el tener un lenguaje propio, brutal y descarnado.” (El género negro 14)

In the same volume, Giardinelli’s introductory assessment of the genre’s possibilities is perhaps exaggerated, but indicative of the enthusiasm shared by a significant community of Latin American writers beginning in the 1970s:
La novela negra impregna hoy en día la vida cotidiana; tiene las mejores posibilidades de reseñar los conflictos político-sociales de nuestro tiempo; penetra en millones de hogares del mundo entero a través del cine o la televisión […] y es notable cómo ha influenciado a casi todos los grandes escritores modernos, de todas las lenguas y de cualquier género. (13)
However grand, it is worth noting that this claim is echoed by the best know Spanish practitioner of the novela negra, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who invoked Ernest Mandel to affirm: “la única novela legítima y ética de nuestro tiempo es la policiaca.”
(qtd. in Braham 143 n 16). In Mandel’s memorable social history of the crime story, published the same year as Giardinelli’s study, the Belgian socialist gave a convincing account of the origins of the genre, associating the U.S. hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s (representing for him “the first great revolution in the crime novel”) with a crisis triggered in public life by the imposition of Prohibition and the subsequent rise of organized crime. “Social corruption,” Mandel wrote, “especially among the rich, now moves into the centre of the plots, along with brutality, a reflection of both the change in bourgeois values brought about by the first world war and the impact of organized gangsterism.” (35) According to this social-historical view, the previously refined detective novel became more sensationally violent, individualistic, lawless and morally ambiguous as U.S. culture absorbed the cumulative shocks of World War I,
organized crime and Depression. Elsewhere2 I have proposed that certain parallels in political and criminal culture may help to explain the emergence of the novela negra in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s, and I trust that everyone involved in this panel will easily imagine which trends in Latin American public life over the last several decades lend themselves to examination by the hard-boiled “critical consciousness”.
When writers such as Taibo and Giardinelli began promoting the novela negra in Latin America during this period, it seemed to them to offer the formula for a critical literary response to a comparable but more acute crisis in public life and security in Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere. The Latin American novela negra denounced and imaginarily combated the criminal contamination of economic and political institutions, foremost among them, the authoritarian state. In retrospect, perhaps its principle distinction was its attempt to modify the essentially individualistic and populist orientation that rendered the U.S. hard-boiled novel, for all its disillusionment, ideologically integrative in the view of many critics. The classical U.S. private investigator in the mold of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler battled pervasive corruption and criminal conspiracy as a lone avenger, and rarely did his investigations indict the national government or the political system per se.3 In contrast, politicallyinflected denunciation of state criminality is a pillar of the Latin American variant, and all of you will recognize the refrain in this comment attributed to a police detective in a recent Argentine novel chosen nearly at random: “En este país, la mayoría de los crímenes son obra de militares o policías o ex militares y ex policías.” (Figueras 167). In
one explanation of the Mexican neopoliciaco he founded, Taibo cited the following characteristics: “La obsesión por las ciudades; una incidencia recurrente temática de los problemas del Estado como generador del crimen, la corrupción, la arbitrariedad política.” (qtd. in Balibrea-Enríquez 50 n 5). In short, the Latin American novela negra embraced the critical consciousness of the classic U.S. hard-boiled novel, but often sought at least a covert politicization of the private investigative enterprise.
In the several decades of the novela negra’s development in Latin America, I find it instructive to review how few detective-centered series have been sustained. Serial production and marketing has been an industrial norm at least since the novelistic debut of Hammett’s Continental Op in Red Harvest (1929), yet differences in literary markets and the economics of publishing in Latin America surely begin to explain why the only continuous detective series that I can identify after several years of research are Taibo’s apparently suspended Belascoarán Shayne series (1976-1993, nine novels) and Chilean Ramón Díaz Eterovic’s enduring Heredia series (1987-2003, currently numbering nine as well). Other detective protagonists such as Leonardo Padura Fuentes’s Mario Conde (1991-2001, four full-length and two short novels), Rafael Ramírez Heredia’s Ifigenio Clausel (1979-92, three novels), and Roberto Ampuero’s Cayetano Brulé (1993-2001,
four novels, with a fifth forthcoming) may yet achieve comparable longevity, but my general sense of this genre is that the force of this narrative position is waning. In what remains of this paper, I’d like to offer evidence of this trend and to venture an explanation of it, referring both to broad theories of the historical trajectory of crime fiction and to cultural conditions currently prevailing in Latin America.

Criminal Ascendency
Anglophone historians of crime fiction generally concur in viewing the emergence of 19th century detective story as a mutation of earlier popular literature featuring criminals such as bandits and pícaros as heroes. In the work previously cited, Mandel suggests that the invention of the detective hero represented a dialectical inversion of previously prevailing literary perspectives on crime, relegating the criminal to role of antagonist and preparing the way for the refinement of the literary form which became “the epitome of bourgeois rationality in literature” (25-6). In his Marxist analysis, Mandel emphasizes the strongly integrative or affirmative function of the classical detective genre with regard to the law and rationality of the bourgeois order. He also distinguishes, however, significant differences in the degree of affirmation of bourgeois values and institutions exerted in the various lines of the genre: the hard-boiled is clearly less overtly integrative, for example, than the police procedural that is still a staple of U.S. television. What most interests me here, however, is Mandel’s closing suggestion that due to cultural developments associated with late capitalism, the general trajectory of
crime fiction over the course of the twentieth century is ultimately away from affirmation of classical bourgeois ideology and toward moral ambiguity and a disintegrative skepticism tending toward nihilism. In the closing pages of his study, Mandel asks, “Has the wheel now turned full circle? Has the systematic recourse by monopolists [monopoly capitalists] to illegal methods, the corruption of themselves and the state apparatus that defends their interests, reached a point where the universe of the crime story has been turned upside down and the criminal has once again, as at its origins, become an object of sympathy?” (129) To cite only one further canonical view, I will mention that Julian Symons reaches almost identical conclusions in his study Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972, revised 1985). He begins his synopsis of the historical development of the crime story by defining its first stage as follows: “Stories about crime as a form of radical social protest, in Godwin, Lytton, Balzac. The criminal is seen as a hero, or a victim of social injustice.” Steps two through five in this synopsis recount the evolution of the detective protagonist, but Symons concludes his synopsis with the eclipse of the detective by the crime novel, in which neither the investigator nor the deductive process need play a significant role (234). Like Mandel, Symons describes a possible return to origins in the triumph of a new crime novel which, in its social attitude
(“Varying, but often radical in the sense of questioning some aspect of law, justice or the way society is run” 162), resembles popular crime literature before Poe more than it does the broadly conservative and integrative literature produced by Poe’s heirs.
Recalling my previous observation regarding the political charge of the Latin American novela negra, I would not wish to sound overly reductive regarding the ideological character of a genre encompassing so many historical and geographic variants. What I would propose, however, is that following at least a century of “police ascendancy” in the international crime story (Mandel 53), we may now perhaps discern a trend of “criminal ascendancy,” particularly in the contemporary Latin American market.
During the period of “police ascendancy,” ratiocinative, hard-boiled, espionage and police procedural variants of the investigative crime novel all maintained to various degrees the heroic status and truth-generating function of the detective protagonist who often remained marginally situated, as the just defender of an ideal bourgeois social order.4 While the degree of the detective’s marginality and alienation may mark the intensity of critical consciousness with respect to the social formation in which a given text appears, even the politically oppositional Latin American novela negra remains integrative inasmuch as it affirms social solidarity and cohesive humanist values against the socially atomizing forces of transnational market capitalism. When the detective position fails, however, we are afforded a more sobering glimpse of a contemporary social world in which capitalist and consumerist objectification and quotidian violence defy ideological containment.5
Before proceeding to a brief survey of textual evidence to support my claims, I’ll pause only to recall that the emergence of the novela negra in Latin America coincides very closely with a moment of multiple crises throughout the region. The moment was defined generally by the exhaustion of the import-substitution model of state-directed modernization, 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. Debt crisis and austerity measures were among the factors dictating a general depression of living standards in many parts of the region during the Lost Decade of the 1980s, and since then, continued economic displacement has continued to fuel a drastic deterioration in public security, particularly in metropolitan areas. Writing in a recent issue of LASA Forum, Roberto Follari of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Argentina, summarized the current state of regional affairs as follows:

Es cierto, entonces, que cabe entre los latinoamericanos hablar hoy de “desesperación”, y que esto se hace más patente desde la vivencia diaria en nuestros países. Desocupación y marginalidad crecientes, problemas de seguridad permanentes para la población, aumento del narcotráfico, crisis de la adscripción normativa que garantiza el lazo social, corrupción gubernamental, deuda externa galopantes, presiones de los organismos de crédito... (4)

The causes and local inflections of these phenomena are, of course, well beyond the scope of this essay, but what I would like to emphasize is the existence of an acute and ongoing crisis in public security in Latin American cities, where rates of impunity for serious crimes may commonly exceed 90%, as has occurred in Mexico City and Bogotá in recent years.6 Venezuelan criminologist Rosa del Olmo speaks of “el incremento vertiginoso, a partir de la década de los 80, en las principales ciudades de América Latina, de la relación violencia/criminalidd y especialmente la criminalidad violenta,”  (77) and this boom in criminality, along with the crisis in the reproduction of traditional social norms to which Follari refers, constitute, for me, the necessary backdrop against which to contemplate the most recent mutation of the novela negra.

The Faltering Detective
In order to substantiate the notion of criminal ascendancy, I will comment on some of the previously mentioned spokesmen of the genre and on a selection of recent texts which seem to disrupt received notions. As the self-proclaimed “propietario” of the Latin American neopolicial, Paco Ignacio Taibo II has almost certainly done more than anyone else to propagate the genre internationally, yet as mentioned, his nine-novel Belascoarán Shayne series seems to have dwindled to a halt with 1993’s Adiós, Madrid.
Following his death in the third novel of the series and his resurrection for a fourth, Belascoarán may be said to have withered like a ghost, and the last several slim installments in the series betray a sense of fatigue on Taibo’s part as the plots become more schematic, the tone more farcical, and the characterizations and descriptive content more perfunctory. Inasmuch as the Mexican neopolicial has thrived in the work of younger writers directly indebted to Taibo, it is worth noting that they have proposed their own modifications of his paradigm. Juan Hernández Luna, for example, strongly echoes his predecessor in his own definition of the genre, but rejects one notable feature:

“En mi modesta opinión, es un género que a partir de un crimen o una situación de gandallez, permite contar todo un contexto social, una ciudad, independientemente de que resuelvas o no el crimen. Al demonio los detectives y la investigación. El crimen sólo es un pretexto para contar ciudades.” (qtd. in Torre 16)

While the prolific Taibo has continued to publish regularly outside the genre, preferring biography and the historical adventure novel in recent years, the second father of the Mexican hard-boiled detective novel, Rafael Ramírez Heredia, has followed a perhaps more revealing course. Since publishing three novels (1979, 1985 and 1992) featuring the truly hard-boiled Ifigenio Clausel, has dropped the detective and turned his attention most recently to one of the newer transnational forms of organized criminality in La Mara. The novel deals with Mara Salvatrucha, a gang with origins in Los Angeles and San Salvador, but which preys here on immigrants along the Mexico-Guatemala border, a jungle rather far removed from urban one conventionally inhabited by the hardboiled detective. As in the case of drug trafficking, an extremely common topic in the contemporary Latin American novela negra, such transnational criminal activities drastically exceed the scope of the private detective’s characteristically local and urbanauthority.7
The impasse to which the detective paradigm has led in Latin America is perhaps most clearly evident in Díaz Eterovic’s Chilean Heredia series, currently the most prolific in the region. The first installment, written in 1985 and published in 1987, under the Pinochet dictatorship, ended with the private detective’s destruction of a luxurious cabaret doubling as torture center and his execution of a torturer of high rank in the security apparatus, but since then the fantasies of justice enacted by the Heredia character have grown considerably more cautious. Perhaps in deference to a growing familiarity on the part of both author and readers, the detective is tamed and becomes a more blatant champion of the “humane individualism” to which Stephen Knight refers (see note 5). I would suggest that the fissure between the pretense of hard-boiled objectivism in the depiction of societal corruption, on the one hand, and the generic demand for just closure, on the other, is particularly visible in Díaz Eterovic’s repeated recourse to fortuitous accidents which eliminate Heredia’s adversaries immediately following their climactic confessions, at the narrative moment in which the detective would otherwise have to exercise violence directly himself. In Angeles y solitarios (1995), an assassin and former military torturer dies falling from a balcony in an attempt to escape Heredia, and in Los siete hijos de Simenon (2000), another villain is run over, again while attempting to
escape. (It is interesting to note that a serial killer in Taibo’s inaugural Belascoarán novel also dies this way, impaled on a fence while fleeing from the detective.)
Elsewhere in the Heredia series, the displacement of narrative justice is achieved through a delegation of violence, as when, also in Los siete hijos de Simenon, the detective wounds a hired killer, but leaves him set up to be finished off by the police in what seems to constitute, rather literally, a narrative “cop out”. This mechanism recurs in El ojo del alma (2001) when, following the confession of an informant who has betrayed the Chilean left for decades, Heredia leaves him to be finished off by CIA agents. In a narrative that relentlessly demands retribution, this is an awkward delegation of responsibility for it, even taking into consideration Knight’s observation that the genre always has depended on “constant humane, even romantic” interventions contradictory to its assertions of critical objectivity. To me, implausible delegation and displacement of punishment suggest to me the failure of the initial conception of a detective hero capable
of violent retaliation against crimes of the state. By absolving Heredia of this mission, Díaz Eterovic clarifies his moral authority and secures the loyalty of readers, but only tenuously negotiates the ultimately untenable serial pretext of a solitary avenger combating criminal conspiracies involving powerful bureaucrats, military officials and transnational corporations.
If we accept that the hard-boiled detective paradigm strains under the weight of its accommodation to realistic representation of criminality in contemporary Chile, where public security is perhaps better protected than anywhere else in Latin America8, how
will it fare in nations such as Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, where the precariousness of public security has been an issue of intense concern in recent decades? Although I have addressed Mexico only briefly, I would like to turn now to the Colombia, since it offers an extremely interesting case study in the relationship between criminality in social and political life and the production of crime fiction. Scholars of Latin American detective fiction seem to agree that despite relatively recent contributions such as Santiago Gamboa’s notable Perder es cuestión de método (1997), Colombia has no cohesive tradition in the genre. Gamboa, who was encouraged by Taibo to experiment with the genre given the lack of production in Colombia, has suggested that a literary form designed to mediate and contain violence so strongly has lacked credibility in a country so long afflicted by “una excesiva proximidad de violencia.” (qtd. in Fajardo)
In an interview with María Claudia Zamara, Gamboa explains in that order to formulate a credible novela negra, the first condition he imposed was the exclusion of the major factors of national violence in Colombia (drug trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitaries) in order to
dramatize “la violencia difusa que deja esa otra gran violencia.”9 The second condition was the rejection of the private investigator in favor of a journalist protagonist who would provide, he explained, a more credible approximation to the immediate reality of Bogotá. This is the same
decision made by Chilean novelist, Alberto Fuguet, in his 1996 Tinta roja. In comments which impugn the plausibility of the Heredia enterprise, Fuguet explained his motives as follows:

Me pasó que leyendo libros de detectives chilenos simplemente no me la creía. Siento que del 70 hacia delante no puedes tener una pistola y pasar piola. Si encuentro que un tío mío tiene una pistola pensaría que trabajaba para la DINA. Un detective habría sido poco creíble, si iba a hacer una novela negra mejor ponía a un periodista, que es la gente más negra que conozco, pasada a cigarrillo, ese tipo de cosas. Y además este país es muy pelador, qué vas a investigar si todo se sabe, especialmente los affaires. En las novelas de detectives siempre hay uno y de ahí surge después el caso principal. Tampoco hay gente tan marginada, es otro tipo de aislamiento. No existe esa cosa de que vives en Cincinnati y nunca hablas con un ser humano o vives sin parientes. (Interview)

While a character carrying a pistol may not seem so implausible in contemporary Bogotá, the preference of Fuguet and Gamboa for a reporter protagonist calls our attention to the persistent problem of the cultural specificity of the private detective prototype, one which
Taibo and Díaz Eterovic tend to acknowledge through insistent mockery of their own creations in the text. Ultimately, however, the unresolved incongruity of the hard-boiled detective protagonist in the Latin American setting, along with as the permanent
contradiction in the neopolicial project between realism and heroic fantasy,10 swamps verisimilitude, prodding other writers to opt either for alternative models of investigative protagonist, as in the cases of Gamboa and Fuguet, or directly for a recentering of the
novela negra on criminal subjectivity, as anticipated by Mandel and Symons. At the end of Scorpio City (1998), another novel enacting the defeat and death of a detective protagonist, Mario Mendoza writes of Colombia: “En un país con el 97% de impunidad, una novela policíaca con final feliz es pura literatura fantástica.” (169)


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Works Cited

Briceño-León, Roberto. “Violence and the Right to Kill.” Paper presented at “Rising Violence and the Criminal Justice Response in Latin America: Towards an Agenda for Collaborative Research in the 21st Century.” University of Texas, Austin, May 6-9, 1999. 28 July 2004. <>