In his classic book “Killings,” Calvin Trillin said that writing about violence is best when it allows us to delve more into how people lived than into how they died.
This claim has been tested over the last dozen years, though, given the unrelentingly gruesome news out of Mexico, a country where I lived for 10 years ending in 2004: mounds of headless bodies, corpses hanging from overpasses, a man known as “The Soupmaker” who dissolved cartel victims in acid baths, etc.
As a crime reporter, I’ve wondered how Mexican artists are to digest and use the pornographic violence that has been part of their daily news. Amid such barbarism, is there any respite to allow us to ponder what the violence means and says about how we live? Are there any heroes anymore, even the tainted, befuddled kind? In the old corridos, heroes are doomed men up against impossible odds yet going into battle anyway. But even the corrido is corrupted in Mexico today, providing only unabashed propaganda and applause for the best-armed and most-moneyed sadists as they grind up other human beings.
Mexican crime novelist Elmer Mendoza’s response is to turn to Edgar “Lefty” Mendieta. Mendieta is a classic pulp detective: hapless, tough and driven, kind of corrupt but the only cop around not on the cartel’s payroll. He’s unsentimental yet attracted to the possibility of love and all the while consumed with self-doubt. When we meet Mendieta in “The Acid Test” — Mendoza’s third novel involving the detective — he’s contemplating suicide, wondering why he continues to occupy space in the world.
Mendieta’s misfortune is to be working in contemporary Culiacan, a city in northwestern Mexico, as a drug war breaks out, pitting cartels against each other and the government against them all. In a country where few homicides are ever solved, a detective with a sense of justice can go mad. As the bodies pile up around him, Mendieta holds on to his sanity by concentrating on solving one murder. The victim was a dazzling Brazilian stripper, Mayra Cabral de Melo, with whom he had a one-night encounter that left him imagining the possibility of love.
Then she wound up dead on a lonely road with a severed nipple.
“Why do I kid myself?” Mendieta wonders. “Good things never last.”
Mendoza is an important Mexican writer not least because he is among a group of border authors who emerged in the late 1990s as the country’s centralized one-party state crumbled. Up till then, any novelist with aspirations had to visit Mexico City often, if not live there full time. But the border writers held that what happened in Mexico’s north — a region long disparaged by the country’s intellectual and political elites as too close to the Yankees and thus less fully Mexican — was at least as worthwhile. So they dug into their haunts in Juarez, Tijuana, Chihuahua City or, in Mendoza’s case, his home town of Culiacan, the bleeding heart of Mexico’s drug world and hot as an oven.
Mendoza uses Mendieta’s investigation as a chance to take us through Culiacan, visiting a strip club, the home of a car dealer with a homicidal daughter, and Humaya Gardens cemetery, where dozens of narcos are buried in gaudy mausoleums. All that’s missing is a visit to the chapel of Jesús Malverde, the narco-saint. (The five-page listing of characters at the front of the book is essential to understanding the narrative.)
As Mendoza eschews quotation marks, the book at times feels like stream of consciousness. The prose can sound stilted, perhaps because pulp, with the underworld’s cultural specificity, can be as difficult to translate as poetry. But like any pop-lit genre, pulp is fantasy, even more so when the protagonist is a police detective in Culiacan, a grim profession distinctly impervious to the romance of noir sensibilities. Indeed, we see Mendieta arguing with his bosses and, contrary to their orders, going after powerful state politicians. That’s fantasy, but is there any other way a novelist can grapple with the holocaust around him?
It’s not giving too much away to say that the book ends with Mendieta returning to the morgue to reunite Mayra’s nipple with her corpse. More fantasy, it’s true. But in a land from which so much has been severed in the last dozen years, maybe that’s all a hero can do.
Sam Quinones’s most recent book is “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”
By Elmer Mendoza
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried
MacLehose. 284 pp. $24.99