Since the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ was launched in 2006, Mexico has become the most violent country among those which are not officially at war. The Mexican government recently released data showing that between 2007 and 2014 – a period that accounts for some of the bloodiest years of the nation’s war against drug cartels – more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide. The numbers seem to have decreased, but not substantially.
Now, if we examine the news, we realise that most of the drug traffic related violence takes place in rural areas or in small towns. The question would be: how is it, then, that most novels of the ongoing Mexican crime fiction boom are set in an urban context? From the early works by Rodolfo Usigli and Rafael Bernal in the 1940s to the books of the youngest generation, represented by Iván Farías (born 1976) and Hilario Peña (born 1979), Mexican crime novels can be used for the study of the representations of urban space in narrative fiction. Most of them take place in different neighbourhoods of Mexico City, but there are an increasing number of alternative urban settings, such as Tijuana, Mazatlán, Campeche, or Culiacán. Only a few works or short sequences take place in the dry rural landscapes that newspapers usually show in connexion with organized crime in Mexico, drug related violence or State sponsored violence.
In Latin America, in general, literature about these issues has become a genre in itself, known internationally as narco novela. And here we should notice that narco novela and crime fiction are two different genres that rarely overlap. Very few works, among them some novels by Elmer Mendoza or Francisco Hagenbeck, as well as Yuri Herrera’s Los Trabajos del Reino (Kingdom Cons), are read as both narco narrative and crime fiction.
It is not a sacrifice of historicity for tradition’s sake. Even if the violence that stems from drug trafficking is so much under the international spotlights, there is a lot of traditional, old-school crime in Mexico, and traditional psychopaths like the main character in César Güemes’ Soñar una Bestia (Dreaming of a Beast), one of the most urban of the whole collection in the sense that it goes back to the dark, underworld atmospheres typical of early representations of the city as the axis of modern angst.
Such fascination with Raymond Chandler’s ‘mean streets’ can be traced to the obvious fact that Chandler himself and the whole hard-boiled school are still our main influences. But there is another reason, and it goes back to the development of main stream Mexican fiction, from the French imitations of 19th century writers (like Federico Gamboa) to the emergence of modernism.
Mexican literature owes its best authors to the 1910 Revolution, with its emphasis on the need to give a voice to the unprivileged, the ‘underdogs’ of Mariano Azuela. The immediate consequence of this was the Novela de la Revolución, and its first major figure was Azuela. It is commonly attributed to him the no small achievement of crafting the first modern urban narrative of our literary history (though it would be possible to argue that Federico Gamboa did that a couple of decades before). This work is La Luciérnaga (The Lightworm), a novella that features prostitutes and criminals of the most appalling breed.
Now, if we accept that this is the founding piece of Mexican modern realism, it is tempting to point at another landmark. When José Revueltas died, in 1976, the press headlines rushed to say ‘the last of the realistic writers has died’. In the opening scene of Revueltas’ last long novel – Los Errores (The Mistakes) – we meet a pimp named Mario Cobián. He arrives to a seedy hotel carrying a small shoulder bag and a heavy trunk. Inside this there is a homosexual midget, Cobián’s accomplice. They plan to burglarize a moneylender’s office. The novel goes on weaving the plan. At the end of it, both the moneylender and the midget will have been murdered. There are only streets, squalid neighbourhoods, and dark alleys, like in a videogame.
Of course, it can be argued that since its origins in Edgar Allan Poe or the first proto-detectives imagined by Dostoyevsky and Victor Hugo, crime fiction has been given urban settings. And the majority of the novels – American, English, French, German, Scandinavian, etc. – take place in cities. However there are still many notable exceptions, even in the founders of the hard-boiled school, and there are authors in the genre completely identified with rural or semi rural spaces, like Camilla Läckberg.
However, it is important to track these influences to understand the expectations of many readers in Europe and North America, in the sense that Mexican – and in general Latin American crime fiction - wrongly confused with narco novela should be a reflection of the violence unleashed by the drug wars. There are several differences: the urban setting vs. the rural landscape, the individual heroes and antiheroes of crime novels as opposed to the collective characters that appear many times in narco novelas (drug cartels, police corporations), the apparent lack of social and political criticism in crime stories, etc., and even the narrative lineage, as Mexican crime fiction comes mainly from the American hard-boiled school, while narco novela could be more accurately traced back to the Novela de la Revolución. The last, but perhaps most important difference is in the marketing timing: narco novela seems to be receding in the public taste, both at home and abroad, while crime fiction is at its peak in popularity.
Agustin Cadena is a Mexican writer and literary scholar, currently teaching at Debrecen University, Hungary. He has published over 30 books, most of them mystery fiction for young readers. Many of his stories can be found online, translated into English and several other languages.
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.