There is no literary genre, outside of perhaps dystopian science fiction, better suited to capture our present moment than crime fiction. Telling the difference between organized drug lords and elected politicians has become challenging, if not impossible. Citizens don’t trust the police. White collar criminals get off scot free. Perhaps this is always the case, but there’s something about the grey vision of crime fiction–where the heroes are compromised and the villains might just have a point–that seems especially relevant in 2017. And with a president who is constantly threatening to build a wall along the Mexican-American border and ranting about criminals in other countries–while at the same time investigations into his possibly illicit activities gain steam–there might be no more vital author to read right now than the brilliant Mexican crime writer Yuri Herrera.
Herrera is the author of three novels, each one published in the United States by And Other Stories. Each novel is short (under 150 pages), and each has a taut crime plot with the requisite twists, turns, and dead bodies. You could read his entire oeuvre in a weekend binge. But each short novel is packed tightly with meaning, like a small bomb waiting to explode in the reader’s mind. These are page turners with something to say about how crime and violence weave a dark web throughout society
Herrera’s style shows the influence of hardboiled detective writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: his sentences are short and punchy, but infused with thematic meaning. In interviews, Herrera praises those authors for their “brutally honest gaze at a brutal reality.” Herrera is more willing to stray from the realism of hardboiled noir though, and to give us a poetic gaze at our brutally honest reality.
His three novels add up to a loose trilogy, each examining different aspects of crime Mexico and the borderlands.
Herrera’s most recently translated (but first written) novel is Kingdom Cons, a book that blends fantasy and crime by reimagining a modern narco lord’s house as the court of a king. The novel follows a musician named Lobo, later called the Artist, who is taken into the drug lord’s estate (aka the King’s Court) to entertain and create propaganda songs like a modern medieval bard. The fable-like storytelling is filled with Machiavellian schemes and punctuated by bouts of blunt violence. (I included this novel in my list of novels that Game of Thrones fans might love.) People are killed, plots are hatched, and power is flexed.
When Lobo first meets the druglord, he describes him this way:
The one time Lobo had gone to the pictures he saw a movie with a man like this: strong, sumptuous, dominating the things of the world. He was a King, and around him everything became meaningful. Men gave their lives for him, women gave birth for him; he protected and bestowed, and in the kingdom, through his grace, each and every subject had a precise place. But those accompanying this King were more than vassals. This was his Court.
Lobo describes the narco kingpin through the lens of a movie character, and it seems entirely correct to describe those with power in the language of fiction since power is always built and maintained through fictions. Kingdom Cons examines the relation between the powerful and the artist with their fictions, a complicated relationship that’s both generative and destructive.
What elevates the novel above just a great crime fable is its understanding of human nature. By describing modern drug cartels with the language of ancient kingdoms, Herrera shows us the timelessness of our obsession with power. Throughout time there have been people who need their names displayed in giant gold letters for everyone to see. And throughout time there there have been who desperately cling to the powerful, even at the expense of their principles. Something we see every day when we turn on the news.
THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES
Herrera’s second novel, The Transmigration of Bodies, is his funniest. Imagine Romeo and Juliet set in Mexico and rewritten by Raymond Chandler, including the hardboiled wisecracks. In an unnamed Mexican city, a fixer named The Redeemer is called in after the city’s two rival crime families end up holding one of the other’s children hostage. The Castro and Fonseca families were “poor as dirt a couple decades ago, now too big for their boots.” Tensions are extra high because the city is gripped by a plague spread by mosquitos. The streets are empty. Sensible residents stay inside. The Redeemer has to figure out what happened, scuttling in noir fashion between various seedy parts of the cities and the courts of the crime families, while also trying to get laid. (Sadly for him, he keeps forgetting to pick up the condoms that his neighbor Three Times Blonde insists on.)
The novel is equal parts funny, gritty and lyrical. You could imagine it adapted by the Coen brothers. And it’s filled with great lines that would make Chandler envious, such as a description of the Redeemer’s friend: “If there was a market for it, he’d cultivate kidney stones and piss them out.” While this is Herrera’s most hardboiled novel, his almost hallucinatory descriptions of the plague-ridden city lend it an almost apocalyptic feel:
He saw that the mosquitos had abandoned their puddle and what he’d thought was blood was in fact black floating scum. He recalled that on previous days he’d spotted several puddles covered in whitish membranes. This was the first black one he’d seen.
The city was still silent, overtaken by sinister insects.
SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD
Herrera’s first translated novel is also his masterpiece, and easily (for my money) one of the most memorable books of the decade. Like his other two novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a noir that gets skewed out of the usual genre confines into something new. While Kingdom Cons feels like a fable and The Transmigration of Bodies comes close to postmodern farce, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a myth for modern times. It’s also the most relevant–perhaps even urgent–novel of the three for American readers, as it deals with our ongoing border crisis.
The novel’s heroine, a memorable and self-assured woman named Makina, is sent by her mother to bring her brother back fromt the US. To do so is criminal, and she has to get help from a crime boss. She finds it in a “reptile in pants” gangster named Mr. Aitch, who agrees to help her if she will smuggle a package across the border.
Makina’s journey from her small village to Mexico City and then across the border is filled with obstacles and dangers, from violent criminals to violent border guards, and grows increasingly mythic as she gets closer to America. This epic and unreal feeling comes both from the allusions to different mythologies and to Herrera’s lyrical language, which is often tweaked in estranging ways. For example, in the novel Spanish is called “latin tongue” and English is referred to as “anglo.” Language itself is a major theme of the novel and the key to Makina’s journey:
Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damnedest.
The novel builds to a dreamlike ending where language is the key to a confrontation with a border guard. In Signs, the border isn’t just the border between America and Mexico. It is a border of languages, cultures, different lives, even life and death. Somehow Herrera manages to send Makina on a modern odyssey in only about 100 pages. This might be the shortest epic you will ever read.