Monday, September 02, 2013

Fast-Moving and Intense: A Review of “Desperado: A Mile High Noir”

By guest reviewer Teresa Marquez

Since 1993, Manuel Ramos has been the writer of Denver’s noir crime fiction. Desperado: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press) is the latest in his series of mystery novels set in and around Denver.

In Desperado, Ramos crafts an anti-hero, Gus Corral, who faces his own failures: failing to maintain his marriage, failing to keep his job and failing to retain his self-respect. Ramos places his central character in the Latino North Side neighborhood, a community that is undergoing gentrification, affecting the makeup of its inhabitants. Displaced residents move away to other communities where they can afford living. Throughout the novel, Ramos threads social, historical and political commentary on the North Side’s residential shifts and their effects. Even Corral’s family name is symbolic: an enclosure for defense. In this instance, it is against the surrounding new, multi-unit condos and townhouses. Corral embodies the apprehensions and anxieties of the community’s loss of familiar landmarks and cultural manifestations.

Manuel Ramos vividly portrays certain quarters of the North Side neighborhood: a forlorn landscape marked by dry winds blasting from the mountains, whipping dry grasses and wilting the few flowers that defied the odds for a brief survival. Warehouses, Mexican bus stations, skid row bars and congregations of homeless people populate this neglected district. Against this background, Ramos’ multi-layered anti-hero struggles to escape his human condition, his life in a dry fish bowl.

Ramos keeps his plot tight as he layers the history of Pancho Villa’s lost skull and the stolen tilma of San Juan Diego to make the readers feel the tension in the Latino community and Corral’s life. The hard-hitting recession forces Gus Corral to live and work in his ex-wife’s second-hand store, Sylvia’s Superb Shoppe. Daily, Corral looks out the store’s large, dirty windows as he waits for the occasional buyer of Sylvia’s chipped and frayed junk. Even the buyers who were customers no longer frequent Sylvia’s store; most have left the neighborhood. Sylvia’s store with its dirty windows, musty smell, and frayed, chipped junk functions as a metaphor for Corral’s confinement, in a fishbowl, and his life’s frustrations. 

Then one day, Corral’s dull routine changes when a former high school buddy walks into the dusty, hot shop with a financial proposal. Arturo “Artie” Baca, now a married, successful real estate businessman, asks Corral to help him deliver blackmail money to avoid ruining his business and family life. Although successful, Artie’s business dealings have not been without corruption. He is willing to pay a large sum of money to use Corral as delivery boy and insurance against further blackmail demands. Artie knows that Corral is in dire financial straits. Anxious to gain some financial stability and stay ahead of bill collectors, Corral disregards his inner warnings and initially accepts Artie’s offer. This misguided decision later casts him as the prime suspect in Artie’s murder. Anxious to fend off the detectives probing into his life and clear himself of their suspicion, Corral desperately attempts to point them to the dark underbelly world of Denver’s cartel drug dealers and their connection to Artie. His efforts get him too close to dangerous people who settle disputes with violence. In one of Corral’s encounters with the Mexican cartel, he is kidnapped and severely beaten. Corral’s failure to divert the detectives’ suspicions creates a crisis that endangers his family and friends.

Readers familiar with Manuel Ramos’ noir novels will find Desperado a fast-moving and intense mystery with a surprising ending.


Teresa Marquez

Associate Professor Emerita Teresa Marquez is the Curator of the University of New Mexico Libraries Research Program and a Regents Lecturer.

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