Friday, December 12, 2014

Random Thoughts About Detective Fiction

In 2001, Hopscotch magazine published my essay entitled The Postman and the Mex, which was my attempt to summarize the then current state of the literary genre known as crime fiction (detective, mystery, suspense, noir, hard-boiled, etc.) and the role of several Mexican American writers in that genre. I sub-titled the piece From Hard-boiled to Huevos Rancheros in Detective Fiction. I recalled the earliest appearances of Mexicans in North American crime fiction, from the 1940s “detectivo particular” Mariano Mercado in the Dime Detective stories of D.L. Champion to Michael Nava’s gay lawyer/detective Henry Rios. My conclusion was basic: What Chicana and Chicano crime writers have done should be regarded as an evolutionary leap for the mystery genre.

Ah, those were the days.  Those of us who wrote these kinds of stories overflowed with optimism about how far we could go in constructing a new voice in detective fiction. Even so, we were troubled by the lack of critical acceptance of our plots and characters by the heavies in the world of traditional crime fiction publishing, as well as from Latino critics and writers. For example, Lucha Corpi has written about how (when she was starting out) a friend told her that Latina writers did not write detective/crime fiction because “Chicanas did not read [mysteries.] No les han tomado le gusta. They haven’t developed a taste for it.” Confessions of a Book Burner, page 57.

In any event, there are more Latina/o crime fiction writers today than when I wrote my essay, just as there are considerably more Latina/o writers in general than existed at the turn of the century. But I have to say that despite all of our best intentions, and although we may have changed crime fiction to a certain degree, we did not create a wonderful world of Chicano detective fiction warmly embraced by the average mystery reader. It still is difficult for a Chicana/o writer to get published if the manuscript carries the tag of “Chicano novel.”  For sure, difficult but not impossible – but it’s not like the publishers are beating the bushes for the next Latina/o superstar to take the place of Walter Mosley or P.D. James.

That may not matter since I don’t think that was our overall intention. Speaking for me only, I was motivated by several different concerns, not the least of which simply was to tell a good story that would hold readers beyond the first chapter.

However, several academic works have noted the critical importance of Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava, Rudolfo Anaya and me to the mystery genre. For more about the critical analysis and recognition, I recommend the following:

Chicano Renaissance: Contemporary Cultural Trends, David R. Maciel, Isidro D. Ortiz, María Herrera-Sobek, University of Arizona Press, 2000:
 “Raza writers have shaped and reshaped the detective/mystery genre for specific, cultural, political, and social purposes to comment on issues of class, gender, race, and sexual orientation or preference. These writers are producing new literary models that may be viewed as forms of social criticism and cultural representation. Moreover, these writers are modifying the genre by transforming the detective protagonist from white and middle- or upper-class, as in the classical tradition introduced by Edgar Allen Poe and honed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to Raza working-class personas.”

Chicano Popular Culture:  Que Hable el Pueblo, Charles M. Tatum, University of Arizona Press, 2001:
“The Chicano mystery novel is a new genre that has emerged during the past decade.” The author then summarizes the mystery novels of Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava, and Manuel Ramos

Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity, Ralph E. Rodriguez, University of Texas Press, 2005:
Brown Gumshoes is an excellent resource.  The book is comprehensive and its critical observations are knowledgeable, fair, and well-founded. Rodriguez argues that “the Chicana/o detective novel registers the changing identity formations of Chicana/os over the last two decades. Its coincident emergence with and flourishing during the post-nationalist movement makes it a timely and unique means of identifying and chronicling the key changes since the nationalist moment of the 1960s and 1970s.  … [T]he generic features of the detective novel – an alienated way of seeing, a foregrounded and overlapping emphasis on ways of knowing and ways of being, and a signal focus on identity – … make it a rich and unique genre for systematically exploring identity formations.”

Chicano Detective Fiction: A Critical Study of Five Novelists, Susan Baker Sotelo, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005:
Another great resource. “Detective fiction is the first Chicano genre to come on the scene since the corrido that has the potential to reach a broad group of Mexican Americans.”

This week on La Bloga, Em Sedano raised a few questions about detective fiction related to the role of such fiction and the possible “glorification” of brutal police. Set against recent events involving police killing unarmed black men, such questions are bound to generate controversy.  The questions are needed, of course, and I think it is a good sign that people are willing to talk about such topics, and about Latino crime fiction in general, especially against the background of numerous incidents of police brutality and violence.

Some books glorify brutal police or those acting in the place of the police, such as a private detective.  Other books demonize the police.  Still others have three-dimensional characters, police included, who are not all good or all bad. From my perspective it comes down to the usual – if you, the reader, are not looking for the visceral thrill of a reckless, blood-spattered action thriller that has no character development and little plot, you should hunt out well-written books that avoid tiresome tropes and stereotypical clichés. Your hunt may reveal good cops as well as bad cops, good Chicanos as well as bad Chicanos.  Good and bad.

Sedano asks, “Is it harmful to a reader to be rooting for the good detective to win when every day news abounds with one dead reason after another to distrust cops?”  I can’t conceive how a well-written plot that causes the reader to empathize with the main character could be harmful, but maybe I don’t understand the question. Surely, fictional characters cannot, and should not, supplant the reality we encounter on the streets. Keep it real, raza.



Anonymous said...

Good post, Ramos.

To your last paragraph, Manuel, and to Sedano's question: Maybe the word, harmful, is the problem. Instead, I'd substitute--desirable or, positive. For la raza or even society-at-large. All our works exist and intertwine with U.S. culture, including that of various armed police forces. TV, cable, Holywood, etc. teem with plots and heroes that perpetuate a cop-hero culture. Newer bad-cop versions (from Dirty Harry to BBC's Luther series) reflect the realism the public understands walks our streets. However, in such pics, "we" are still rooting for a cop. There are good, real cops also on our streets, but those aren't the ones we worry about.

What does it mean about a country that puts cops, detectives and the like on a media pedestal? That so few police elements are ever even indicted for unwarranted killings of civilians, mostly PoC, much less found guilty, is part of the benefits of occupying the pedestal. We pay for their privileged status. It would seem to be inherent to Gun Culture.

MAYBE, Manuel, our fictional characters should supplant the reality. But supplant it from our perspective of what copdom really does to citizens and why this is wrong, in so many ways. Yes, keep it real. But maybe do it in such a manner that we're undermining the pedestal, striping off the cops' new clothes and portraying a better direction. There's cops in our cities who could serve as models, to keep it real. I'm no writer of this fiction, but I can imagine it would just require a little detective work.
- RudyG, whose hands are up while he still breathes

Manuel Ramos said...

Good comment, Rudy. I agree with most of what you say -- although we'll have to talk about what you mean by "undermining" and why you think that isn't already being done by some writers.

Anonymous said...

Cómo dije, I don't write this fiction, so I don't know how many writers are already doing this. As far as "undermining," I suppose any writer does it as he sees fit. What else can a Chicano do? - RudyG

Anonymous said...

You raise some really interesting questions here about how/whether the community of Chicanas/os fits into Crime Fiction. Our communities are policed and surveilled disproportionately, along with Black people... So the question remains, is crime fiction a good medium for Chican@ readership or is it at odds with our lived experienced of police surveillance and vigilantism. I want to say the mystery genre, loosely, is a good medium for Chicano writers. Certain other more specific types, such as the police procedural, will probably pose more restrictions. Michael Nava's Henry Rios series, for instance, doesn't really glorify the police, rather through the lawyer protagonist, I think the novels shed light on the corruption that is inseparable from local politics and police departments. From my limited experience with Chican@ Crime Fiction, I think the protagonist is rarely an official of the law. Hinojosa's Rafe Buenrostro series is the only one that I can think of that has a police officer (detective?) as protagonist.