The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the friends of Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
The Argentine novelist and critic Carlos Gamerro once wrote that the ‘whodunit’ is doomed to struggle in his country. There is a simple reason for this. In Argentina, if there is an unsolved murder, everyone assumes, or maybe knows, that the police or the military did it. In his novel An Open Secret he explores the role of the police during the Proceso, the dictatorship of the late 1970s. Police forces carried out disappearances, torture and repression far from the big cities, where there was no significant military presence and, it’s worth mentioning, there were very few of the alleged ‘subversives’ whom the junta claimed they were targeting.
For Gamerro then, the classic ‘whodunit’ is voided in the Argentine context, if not Latin America as a whole. The hardboiled model has some validity, not least because its pioneers, and in particular the former Pinkerton Detective turned communist sympathiser Dashiell Hammett, knew not to confuse the police with justice. Another possibility might be the transgressor narrative, what he calls the ‘policeman as murderer’ model, after the fashion of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
1) The police commit the crime.
2) If the crime is committed by someone else, it’s on the orders of the police.
3) The purpose of the investigation is to hide the truth.
4) The judiciary’s mission is to cover up for the police.
5) The clues can never be trusted, as the police got there first.
6) We know from the start who the killer is but have to guess the victim; the novel starts, unlike the English crime novel, not with the appearance but the disappearance of a corpse.
7) The police’s prime suspect is the victim.
8) Everyone accused by the police is innocent.
9) Private Investigators are ex-cops or ex-military, so the only plausible investigator must be a journalist or a member of the public.
10) The aim of this latter investigation is to find out the truth, but not to get justice.
Gamerro is partly joking, but also revealing a structural problem with the crime genre in Latin America, given that in many countries in the region –one thinks of Mexico and Argentina in particular – no one in their right mind trusts the police.
Crime writers have tried various ways of getting around this in Latin America. The earliest crime fictions were parodies or pastiches. These include the Chilean Alberto Edwards who, in the 1910s and 20s, under the pseudonym Miguel Fuenzalida, published stories about the ‘Chilean Sherlock Holmes,’ Román Calvo. Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote four-handed crime stories that used the detective format to satirise the contemporary Peronist era. And one of the very first crime tales, Eduardo Holmberg’s The Bag of Bones (1896) has the detective refer to his adventures as a novel, already sending up the fledgling genre.
Recent writers who do use the police as detectives have to overcome the readership’s lack of faith in the boys in blue. The Cuban Leonardo Padura Fuentes portrays his detective, Mario Conde, as increasingly disheartened with the corruption of his colleagues in the force. Eventually he is forced to quit and work privately – a mark of political changes on the island, perhaps. The Mexican ‘narco-novelist’ Martín Solares, in The Black Minutes, has his more-or-less good cop thwarted at every turn by systematic graft and obstruction, as the investigation turns increasingly surreal and violent. Ernesto Mallo’s Inspector Lascano is one rare example of an honest and relatively successful detective. Mallo argues that, statistically, it is impossible for every single copper out of the tens of thousands employed, to be utterly bent. Readers will judge whether this rings true.
So crime writers in Latin America have to be inventive if they want to create believable, serious detective fictions. And the genre – as the names above demonstrate – is heavily dominated by men. For that reason, the work of Argentina’s María Angélica Bosco needs revisiting. Bosco (1909-2006) was a writer, editor and translator whose novel La muerte baja en ascensor (Death Takes the Elevator) was published by Bioy and Borges in their Séptimo círculo (Seventh Circle) series of crime novels.
Bosco came to be known as the Argentine Agatha Christie, a nickname that in an interview with Página/12 she said annoyed her. In fact, her detective stories are more complicated and provocative than those of her English predecessor. Like the Miss Marple novels, the detective – or at least the protagonist who ends up investigating – is a woman. But unlike Miss Marple, we are not in the world of ‘cosy crime’ or ‘village green murders.’ Bosco’s protagonists are very much contemporary women, dealing with problems of work, sexism, and social conflicts.
Her novel from 1965, La muerte soborna a Pandora (Death Bribes Pandora) starts as version of the locked room puzzle: a woman is killed in a beauty parlour cubicle. Despite this clichéd and even sexist setting, the novel has bigger ambitions. Inés, the protagonist, is a young girl who works there. Driven by a mixture of curiosity and fear, she investigates. Bosco pairs our first-person female narrator with a male detective, Ferruccio Blasi, ‘the dealer in truth.’ It’s a bit like an early version of Steig Larsson’s leading couple. As Inés investigates, suspecting rivalries amongst members of the inner circle of the owner of the parlour, she chances on another death. The victim this time is the first dead woman’s sister, the boss, Tilly, and it looks like a suicide. Inés is at the scene, and finds herself under investigation, as well as being threatened by the various parties involved.
This is a venture into what we now call the ‘girl in trouble’ genre (as in Alejandro Amenábar’s film Tesis), where the hunter becomes the hunted. Unlike the cerebral and distanced detection of Poe’s Dupin, our detective is at risk of violence and worse. Further crimes and threats follow, and Inés finds herself on the run and in hiding. Ferruccio Blasi offers her a way out. He has reached his own conclusions: the first victim, Cora Vivar, was killed by the second dead woman, in a fit of jealousy and ambition. Tilly, the murderer, then killed herself out of remorse. This solution ties up the loose ends and lets everyone off the hook – at least everyone who’s still alive.
Inés, though, is convinced that it’s not so simple. She has information to show that a young beauty parlour employee, Amanda, committed the first crime. Amanda, unknown to all except Inés, is the first victim’s daughter, given up for adoption. Interested third parties have provoked her into killing her biological mother. But Inés’s solution throws up a whole series of problems: it ruins another life, that of Amanda, a woman who has killed only under extreme emotional duress. And although Inés is convinced of her own story, she is not sure that it is strong enough to convince others, and particularly not a court of law in a legal system that pays little notice to young women without political connections.
What is worse, the story would make her look like she’s acting out of jealously, or spite, or self-interest. So the novel thus poses a paradox: between what Inés calls Blasi’s ‘damn practical solutions,’ with convenient suicides to square the circle; and Inés’s own messy, troubling, but truthful solution. The novel ends on a question. Has the simple solution really saved Inés from remorse? Or does the neat resolution leave her feeling even more troubled and regretful? The novel leaves the reader with this question hanging.
Bosco’s 1972 novel Historia privada (A Private Story or A Private History) adds a further twist to the female detective model. Set in Buenos Aires, the novel begins with a mysterious death. A young woman is found dead in a swimming pool. She is an attractive, working-class girl, and the house where she is found belongs to a wealthy family. The sons and their friends had been partying and drinking with the girl and her sister. The detective in this case is not a police officer or a private detective. Neither is she a ‘girl in trouble.’ Laura is a social worker, called in by the investigating team to give a sense of context and character. She is a keen reader of crime reports. More importantly, she is a skilled interviewer. Her affable, sharp-witted nature leads her to aspects of the case that go unnoticed by the other investigators.
Alongside these tweaks to the genre, Bosco includes a series of nods to hardboiled fiction. Laura smokes heavily – five in a morning, all the while telling herself she must stop. She drinks, at all hours of the day, often during interviews with suspects, witnesses and family members: whisky on the rocks to relax her and them. And the world that is depicted shows the same rivalries and nastiness we find in in Raymond Chandler’s ‘tough crime’ fictions.
The murder pits the well-connected, wealthy suspects against a poor, working-class, socialist family, whose daughters aspire to be social climbers. For the mother of the boys accused, the dead girl, Selva Spata, is just ‘a slut. Maybe God can forgive her. I can’t.’ Selva has brought her own fate upon herself, through mixing with young men, drinking, and pushing social and moral boundaries. Victim-blaming is nothing new. Laura, our investigator, counters this bitter nastiness with her own wisecracks, like the typical private detective. ‘Those girls might as well not exist,’ says the mother of the accused. ‘Well one of them doesn’t now,’ replies Laura.
A further innovation by Bosco complicates the detection. Throughout the novel we read interventions from a character called ‘the little man.’ At first it’s not obvious who this is, but over time it becomes clear that it’s Laura’s alter-ego. The voice in her head, this ‘little man,’ is cynical, cruel, and full of recriminations. Through this interior dialogue, between Laura and her male other self, we see her doubts, fears, and conflicts. It’s the voice of male cynicism against her idealism. This insight into the psychology of the detective was something of a novelty, although today it’s a standard feature of police procedurals and neo-noirs, as we are told of the inner turmoil of tortured and even mentally damaged police officers or detectives. It’s particularly popular with TV detectives; James Ellroy and David Peace are also masters.
Yet more innovative is the novel’s interest in the social status and position of women. We see the contrast between different options for women in Argentina in the 1960s and 70s: the long-suffering wife; the wealthy mother; the struggling professional woman; and the younger generation fighting for freedoms. All the female characters are roundly drawn and all are in some way frustrated by circumstances – at times tragically or fatally so. Bosco knew the system’s sexism first-hand: from a conservative background, she lost custody of all but one of her children after splitting with her husband. Her own family sided with her former partner. Fortunately for her readers, this personal disaster forced her to return to writing. Even Laura, the character with most agency in the novel, is constrained by the power of the men around her. All the figures of authority she deals with are male. Even her job comes partly as the result of an affair with a well-connected man.
Bosco’s novel reflects in its form the difficulty of creating a female Latin American whodunit. Rather than a linear investigation, with a detective working through pure reasoning, or in the case of the ‘hardboiled,’ through instinct, physical presence, and when necessary, muscle, Laura’s detections are constantly interrupted. Her personal life, work pressures, and her own memories all get in the way. Her investigation is motivated, aided, and in some ways hampered by her own empathy for the victim. She can’t help but identify the same prejudices surrounding the case with those she experienced herself years earlier. ‘In one way or another,’ she reflects, ‘at least once, all of us have been that girl who….’ It’s a digressive novel, too. The middle section is like something from a different book, as we read of Laura’s teenage life and loves and her relationship with her parents and sister. It took difficult decisions for her to negotiate some freedom over her own life.
In the end, the investigation is frustrated. We witness social changes and the tribulations of a woman trying to put her life in order. But political constraints, Catholic guilt, and quite a lot of police incompetence leave the reader with no clear resolution. Unlike the locked room mysteries, which can and must be solved, the body in the swimming pool offers no conclusive answer. ‘It all came down to a question of evidence.’ And there is simply not enough to conclude that Selva Spata was murdered. The rich kids are able to escape and travel overseas to study. Other members of the party, less-well connected or powerful, are left under suspicion or with their lives blighted for good. Miriam, the victim’s sister, and possibly a key witness, is bought off with a job offer. The legal proceeding gives no justice or satisfaction, either to the victims and their families or to us as readers. Bosco’s is a contemporary, political, and one could say feminist take on the crime novel.
Bosco influenced younger Argentine writers who came after her, including the commercially successful Claudia Piñeiro (Thursday Night Widows), and championed others, like Guillermo Martínez (The Oxford Murders). But her work hasn’t been translated into English and is only patchily published in Spanish, mostly in old second-hand editions available online. It seems an injustice: her novels are innovative, clever, socially aware, and highly readable. Really everything that you’d want from crime fiction.
Ben Bollig is a writer and translator. He teaches Spanish and Latin American literature at Oxford University. He is the translator of the forthcoming Influx Press book, The Foreign Passion by Argentine poet Cristian Aliaga.
In 2011 Cristian Aliaga, journalist, academic, and one of Argentina’s foremost contemporary poets, left Patagonia to take a journey through the UK and continental Europe.
Aliaga travelled to places that exist and do not exist: former mining communities, destroyed in the 1980s; identikit towns with their franchise high streets; run-down suburban railway stations; and the open spaces of the Yorkshire moors. He visited sites of conflict, like the Falls Road in Belfast, places of poetic significance, including Dylan Thomas’s house and the centres of 'Western' culture that those from the edge of the world are told to admire.
So long the object of foreign gazes or described by others, this was the chance for Patagonia to talk back to the centre.
The Foreign Passion tells tales that inspire and devastate, reflecting our cultures back to us from a different perspective.
About the Authors
Cristian Aliaga (b. 1962) is an Argentine journalist, academic, and poet. He is the founding editor and director of the newspaper El extremo sur and its cultural supplement Confines. He also runs the independent publisher, based in Patagonia, Espacio Hudson. He has written and edited dozens of books, including two anthologies of his poetry,Estrellas en el vidrio (2003, Stars in the Glass) and La suciedad del color blanco (2013, White: A Dirty Colour).
Ben Bollig (b. 1977) teaches Spanish and Latin American literature at Oxford, having worked previously at the universities of Leeds, Westminster, and London. His books include Modern Argentine Poetry. Displacement, Exile, Migration (2011) and Néstor Perlongher. The Poetic Search for an Argentine Marginal Voice (2008).