Friday, March 23, 2007

The Postman and the Mex - Part One

Manuel Ramos

The following is Part One of an article that was published originally in Hopscotch, Volume 2, Number 4 (2001). I have updated it a bit but obviously I need to expand the article to encompass changes and developments in the six years since it first appeared. I will post Part Two next week. I welcome suggestions for Part Three, which I may get to one of these days. In the meantime, here is what I have so far and, as usual, all rights reserved by me.


Girl meets boy. Girl and boy murder girl’s husband. Girl and boy destroy each other.

If James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice did not create this essential formula it certainly planted it in the collective consciousness of hundreds of writers who have followed him down the mean streets of crime fiction. This classic noir novel--indeed, some call it a classic American novel--was published in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression and turbulent social unrest. Its bleak, fatalistic point of view and laconic style reflected the tragic world of the main characters and a prevalent cynicism about the American dream. Cain’s use of sex as the canvas for a violent picture of twisted morals and deadly greed was enough to have the book banned in Boston. No surprise, then, that it became an instant hit and established the reputation of Cain, who went on to write other intriguing novels such as Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943).

At its heart, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a novela negra, a crime novel, with criminals as the main protagonists and no real heroes in sight. But it has come to stand for much more. Albert Camus acknowledged it as the inspiration for his own book, The Stranger (1942). At least two major movies and one Broadway play have been based on the book, and more than seventy years after its first publication it is still in print. The Library of America recently included Postman in its two volume Crime Novels anthology published in 1997.

Set in southern California, the story races to its climax, never pausing for literary niceties or random observations other than those critical to our understanding of the characters and their motivations. Thus the fact that Mexicans are even mentioned in this book is especially telling about the times, the characters, the author, and, of course, the country. The first private conversation of the doomed lovers, Frank and Cora, begins with a bold statement from Cora:

“You think I’m Mex.”

“Nothing like it.”

“Yes, you do. You’re not the first one. Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are. You want to get along good around here, you won’t forget that.”

“Why, you don’t look Mex.”

“I’m telling you. I’m just as white as you are.”

“No, you don’t look even a little bit Mex. Those Mexican women, they all got big hips and bum legs and breasts up under their chin and yellow skin and hair that looks like it had bacon fat on it. You don’t look like that. You’re small, and got nice white skin, and your hair is soft and curly, even if it is black. Only thing you’ve got that’s Mex is your teeth. They all got white teeth, you’ve got to hand that to them.”

At least Frank adds good dental hygiene to his smear of an entire nation. Frank and Cora’s attitude was not unusual for white persons during the dust bowl era of the United States. The reader is left to ponder, however, whether Cora isn’t in denial, expressing an early form of Mexican American self-hatred. All in all, Mex is a much softer term than Cain might have used, given the racially charged atmosphere of the Depression era.

Mexicans, Mexicans Everywhere, But Where Are the Mexicans?

From bit players to detectives to killers, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have added a realistic touch to what can be an unrealistic genre. As the body count climbs higher and the sleuth unwittingly stumbles into harm’s way, a Mexican here or there injects verisimilitude, sets a tone of truth. But Mexican characters also been included for their exotic or “colorful” natures, a technique that has been criticized as yet another facet of racism.

James Crumley, James Ellroy, William Campbell Gault, Dorothy Hughes, Whit Masterson, and Jim Thompson are only a few of the many pulp, hard-boiled, or mystery authors who have used Mexican characters or settings in their work. These characterizations rum the gamut from crass caricatures of individuals, whose only Mexican distinctiveness is their Spanish surnames, to sincere attempts to portray the culture authentically.

Non-Mexican writers have had Mexicans or Mexican Americans at the center of their books, and some have built an entire series of stories or books around these characters. Between 1944 and 1948, in the pulp magazine Dime Detective, D.L. Champion published eight novelettes based on his detective hero Mariano Mercado. Mercado was atypical of the 1940s private eye. First, he was a Mexican and operated out of Mexico City. He referred to himself as a “detectivo particular.” Second, although brave and smart, he had quirks, such as raging hypochondria and an unnatural fear of germs. He also had wild taste in clothing. In one story he is described as wearing a “bright, jealous green suit,” shoes as “yellow as the proverbial dog,” and a shirt as “pink as an embarrassed salmon’s underbelly.” When he had to, though, he was quite capable of acting tough and getting physical with the bad guys. Champion was born in Australia and educated in New York.

Robert Somerlott’s short stories about Detective Sergeant Vincente López of the Jalisco State Police appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the 1960s. Somerlott could claim some legitimacy for his characterizations: he lived for a time in San Miguel de Allende. Rex Burns writes a series of police procedurals using Gabriel Wager as his detective. Wager is half Mexican, half Anglo. Burns won an Edgar Award for the first book in this series, The Alvarez Journal, in 1976. Marcia Muller created Elena Oliverez, the first fictional Chicana detective, in The Tree of Death in 1983. Other non-Mexican authors in this genre include Del Shannon (Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide unit), Richard Wormser (Sheriff Ken Craigie, half Mexican, half Anglo), Bruce Cook (Antonio "Chico" Cervantes, Mexican American private eye), Nancy Herndon (Elena Jarvis, Chicana cop from Los Santos, Texas), Earlene Fowler (Gabriel Ortiz, police chief of San Celena, California), Fredric Brown (Tucson homicide detective Frank Ramos).

At this point, the question becomes obvious: Where are the Mexican American authors of crime fiction who use Mexicans or Mexican Americans in their stories? And the follow-up question seems just as obvious: Does ethnicity make a difference?

A Brief History of the Detectivo Particular

The detective Hector Belascorán Shayne deserves special mention. He is at least the second Mexico City private eye whose exploits have made it to the North American reading audience. Champion’s Mercado predates Shayne by several decades. The one-eyed Shayne is the creation of Paco Ignacio Taibo, II, born in Spain in 1949 but a resident of Mexico since childhood and now a naturalized citizen of that country. Taibo has had several novels published in Spanish and English, and he is a major organizer of the International Crime Writers Association’s “Semana Negra” conference, held every summer in Gijón, Spain. Taibo has been writing private-eye novels in Spanish since 1977, but he was not translated into English until 1990. His detective, Shayne, is deeply into leftist politics and is quite philosophical. A typical Shayne story twists and turns through several permutations until, at the end, it has the feel of a Fellini movie. In one novel Shayne is killed off, only to return in the next, with a reluctant “explanation” (certainly not an apology) from Taibo for having upset his readers. Taibo, writing about a Mexican private eye, has found an audience not only in Mexico but in the United States.

Rudy S. Apodaca’s book The Waxen Image, published in 1977, is important because it was, Apodaca claims, the “first mystery-suspense novel by a Chicano.” However, its focus is not on Mexican or Mexican American characters.

The handful of practitioners of Chicano crime fiction engage in almost all of the major forms of the genre, from police procedural to cozy, and use characters from the prototypical private eye to the isolated loser. For example, Rolando Hinojosa is well-known for his ongoing project about life in fictional Belken County, Texas, just a stone’s throw from the border. Two books in the Klail City Death Trip Series are police procedurals featuring Rafe Buenrostro, one of the first Mexican American police characters created by a Chicano author. Hinojosa’s crime fiction resonates with the tempo of the border where corridos and rancheras mingle with the pop of bullets in the sultry night air. His Partners In Crime was published in 1985; Ask A Policeman came out thirteen years later.

On the other hand, Michael Nava’s hero is Henry Ríos, a gay, alcoholic Chicano lawyer whose cases often have elements from the gay underworld, the tragedy of AIDS and the bittersweet life of a man defining his values in an uncaring world. Ríos first appeared in 1986 in The Little Death. Nava has published seven Rios novels. The final installment in the series is Rag and Bone (2001).

Rudolfo Anaya, the author of the immensely popular novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972), took up mysteries late in his writing career but so far has published four novels that can be classified as mysteries: Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), Shaman Winter (1999), Jemez Spring (2005). Anaya’s contribution to the list of Chicano private eyes is Sonny Baca, introduced in a novel usually not classified as a crime novel, Alburquerque (1992). Baca, the grandson of legendary New Mexican lawman Elfego Baca, operates a private-eye business in Albuquerque. Baca’s arch-nemesis is Raven, brujo extraordinaire.

Martin Limón takes his readers to Korea where his Chicano military policeman, George Sueño, has to bend rules to solve exotic and violent crimes. Sueño debuted in Jade Lady Burning in 1992, the same year Anaya’s detective first appeared, and has shown up in three other novels, Slicky Boys (1997), Buddha’s Money (1998), and The Door to Bitterness (2005).

I first published a novel featuring burned-out lawyer and nostalgic Chicano activist Luis Móntez in 1993 in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz. Móntez’s crime solving comes about because of the self-destructive antics of his law clients or the shady nature of many of his old friends. Five novels featuring Luis Móntez have so far appeared. I also have one stand-alone novel, Moony's Road to Hell, that tells the story of Denver private eye Danny "Moony" Mora.

Max Martínez’s stories are as hard-boiled as anything penned by the better-known Elmore Leonard. Martínez explores the dusty, heat-soaked Texas badlands with abundant helpings of gritty violence and feverish sex. Martínez’s sardonic hero, deputy sheriff Joe Blue, has been in White Leg (1996) and Layover (1997).

And Lucha Corpi has given us Gloria Damasco and Dora Saldaña, private investigators who are not quite cozy or hard-boiled -- maybe medium-boiled?

Brown Angels and Black Widows

Contrast Frank’s description of a Mexican woman in The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Damasco’s in Corpi’s Black Widow’s Wardrobe:

At least five-feet-six, and of medium build, she seemed self-possessed to the point of aloofness. Her eyes, framed by arched brows and prominent cheekbones, were large and observant, and they animated an otherwise doleful countenance. I tried inconclusively to guess her age.

"She was in the procession," Tania said. "She looks so sad."

"Sad but lovely," Art commented. "She is ... regal in her sadness. Like a tragic Greek heroine."

"More like a tragic Aztec princess," Francisco remarked.

"More like a brown murderess," Myra said.

Part Two next week.



Anonymous said...

"At least Frank adds good dental hygiene to his smear of an entire nation."

What a great line!


Lisa Alvarado said...

Manuel, you CANNOT keep writing stuff like this, I can barely keep up with my MUST read list! Plus you make it even harder with insightful commentary and your own spin week after week.

Por favor, no mas, jefe!

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you. You got me blushing now, which ain't easy with this old, leathery skin.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Manuel, you blushing?
My raison d'etre..... :)

Desiree said...

But of course, there's James M Cain's Serenade, all about the hot little number from south of the border--I alwyas thought that would have made an interesting movie--

Anonymous said...

They all got whiter teeth, you’ve got to hand that to them.
Ha, that's funny:)

Chus said...

This is what I think: The postman