"The Dead Girls" has its share of crime--murder, human bondage, prostitution--but it hardly can be called a crime novel. The interest generated by this gruesome tale is not who did it, or even what was done, but the clutch of circumstances that made the crimes not only possible but inevitable.

The first work of Mexican novelist and playwright Jorge Ibargu engoitia to be translated into English, the novel is prefaced by the author's comment: "Some of the events described herein are real. All of the characters are imaginary." Whatever the mix, the writer's imagination and sure choice of narrative method raise the story from the level of notoriety and sensationalism to the heart of the matter--murder as the direct result of a power relationship, murder as a natural consequence of the corrupt world portrayed here.

Ibargu engoitia's opening is deadpan and casual: Ladder, the Captain, Brave Nicola's and a woman, all wearing dark glasses, are riding in a car that is straining up Dog Hill through fictitious territories, the Gu emes Mountains. In the course of the drive, the writer makes us aware that something odd and sinister is taking place. The people in the car are not only strange, they are acting as though compelled to do what they do for unknown reasons. (Indeed, the motive isn't fully revealed until the end of the novel.) They reach the town of Tuxpana Falls, ask for the location of the town bakeries, drive to each, and get out at the third. The Captain hands the woman, Serafina, a pistol. She stands in the doorway of the bakery. The baker and a woman are inside. Serafina aims the pistol at the baker and calls out, "Don't you remember me anymore, Simo'n Corona? Maybe this will remind you!" She fires the pistol and misses the baker. The Brave Man then sprinkles gasoline on the floor and sets the bakery on fire. The four drive off.

The subsequent police investigation reveals that Serafina Baladro, madam of three whorehouses, is the baker's former lover, and that the seemingly blameless baker took part with Serafina in the illegal burial of a dead whore. This revelation leads us into the novel's maze of accidental deaths, murders, secret burials, and imprisonments that results in Serafina's ruin, that of her sister and partner Arca'ngela, as well as the downfall of her companions on the trip to Tuxpana Falls. In time the reader recognizes the unity of this corrupt and complicated little world; for the attempted shooting is almost a minor byproduct, an afterthought, of other unrelated events. The multiple deaths and secret burials as well as this shooting come as the backlash of the madam's rage at the ruin of her business by a new, vain provincial governor who manages--to everyone's surprise--to get a morals act passed and to enforce it.

Until this interference, against which even traditional bribery does no good, the Baladros were doing quite well. They had two establishments: Molino Street in Pedrones, run by Serafina; Me'xico Lindo in San Pedro de las Corrientes, Arca'ngela's concern. "The prostitution business is simple," Arca'ngela says, "All you have to do to be successful at it is to keep a strict discipline." The sisters have found what seems an ideal location for a third house: Concepcio'n, approximately equidistant from San Pedro and Pedrones. They hire an architect with a reputation as a brothel designer in Tijuana and establish the Casino del Danzo'n. The new brothel is splendid indeed:

"They were delighted with the plan: 15 rooms and 15 baths; a cabaret decorated to represent the ocean bottom--when one looked up one saw sharks and devilfish hanging from the ceiling; two private salons, one done in Arab style, the other in Chinese; and an indoor swimming pool, the purpose of which was not clear to anybody since none of the girls and only an occasional customer knew how to swim."

The new governor has the morals act passed, which makes it illegal even to deliver soda pop to brothels. The Baladros close two houses, buy a farm where they install their sister and brother-in-law (the farm is the scene of several deaths later on), and retreat with their prize whores to a secret life in the ostensibly padlocked Casino del Danz'on. Some of the girls are sold off to other brothels, others are held prisoner at the casino and the farm. A series of accidental deaths and murders takes place, leading to the attempted shooting of the baker that began the book.

The relationship between the madams and prostitutes, formerly functional if not warm, more military than maternal, degenerates as do the fortunes of the Baladros. Each faction assumes new postures of hatred and enmity. The Baladros' "discipline" turns into a complete disregard for the prostitutes' humanity, the basis of business all along, of course. The girls were sold to the brothel by their parents or others and are, more or less, slaves to the Baladros. With business gone bad, the girls' fortunes take an even worse turn; they are sold, killed, imprisoned, secretly buried--and there is no one to inquire after them or to seek justice for them. The prostitutes are outcasts who won't turn to their families because they are ashamed of being prostitutes. When a few rebel against their owners, all the demons are loosed, and the terrible consequences of the rebellion offer a minor study in the violence of the passive. The twists and turns of spiraling morality, presented without comment or judgment, form another plot line in this compelling book, pulling us through to the events that we began to dread from our first look at the crew in the car straining up Dog Hill.

Ibargu engoitia builds his strange and involved plot through several kinds of narrative voice, primarily an omniscient narrator, willing to admit that he is making guesses at the scenes he describes: "It could have been like that." He also uses testimony from the participants and witnesses, changes tense from present to past and back again. This variety in narration gives the tale a fresh, tentative and nightmarish quality. Asa Zatz's translation is readable and fluent, yet the prose still sounds translated. Whether this is a function of the original or the translation is impossible to say for a non-Spanish reader; one's sympathy always is with the author. On the strength of this work, further translations of Ibargu engoitia novels and plays would be most welcome.

"The Dead Girls" is set in the 1960s and 1970s. With its narrative verisimilitude to police records and court documents, the novel convinces a reader unfamiliar with our neighbor to the south that one is being given an accurate picture of at least an aspect of provincial Mexican life. For some reason, brothel life often is thought to be natural material for comedy. Jorge Ibargu engoitia doesn't fall into this trap. "The Dead Girls" is not only a beautifully wrought story of a particular episode, it is a brilliant, cool look at the forms and the tolls that power may take.