Book review: Silver Bullets

DETECTIVE Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, the main player in Elmer Mendoza’s English-language debut, likes ‘an impossible case’. 

Book review: Silver Bullets

Elmer Mendoza

MacLehose, €22.50

Not because Lefty is any kind of cerebral sleuth, a Poirot or Holmes seeking out the most difficult crimes in order to stimulate his little grey cells, but because Lefty is a Mexican policeman operating in the city of Culiacán with the Federal Preventative Police, and his experience is that murder cases tend to be ignored, covered up, deliberately botched or otherwise swept under the carpet.

It’s for the best, Lefty believes, if his superiors declare a murder ‘an impossible case’ as soon as possible, and preferably before Lefty gets to the crime scene, so as not to wastefully expend the already pitiful resources of the FPP.

Unfortunately for Lefty, the murder of Bruno Canizales can’t be easily filed under ‘impossible’, especially as the murderer rather flamboyantly used silver bullets when assassinating the high-profile bisexual attorney.

Was the killer Canizales’ tempestuous lover Paolo Rodriguez, who subsequently committed suicide? His other tempestuous lover, the dancer Francisco Aldana?

Or was the murder orchestrated by the all-powerful ‘Narcos’ who control Mexico’s drug trade, and who control virtually every politician, judge and policeman in the country?

Lefty Mendieta is a terrific creation, a gloomy, intellectual introspective who is resolutely cynical about the world and his place in it. “What did he know about modernism, or postmodernism for that matter, or intangible cultural heritage?”

Lefty asks of himself on the very first page, establishing the parameters of Elmer Medoza’s investigation into contemporary Mexico but also, courtesy of the high-falutin’ pondering, tipping us the wink that Mendoza’s own exploration of the culture will very likely shed no more light on the truth than one of Lefty’s ‘impossible cases’.

And so it proves, as Lefty doggedly pursues the clues and the killer with the penchant for silver bullets, his efforts leading him down numerous blind alleys as he wonders about the significance of the bullets themselves and whether they are being employed for mythical purposes in order to kill a modern vampire or a werewolf.

Lefty is happy to reference James Bond and Gary Cooper, but he’s no hero or tarnished knight, willing to acquiesce when his boss tells him to drop the case and equally happy to accept bribes in the form of cash in a brown envelope.

That said, he’s no coward either, and he goes where the investigation leads him, even when it takes him right to the gates of the region’s most feared Narco, Marcelo Valdés.

Not that Lefty, living his life according to the surreal logic of contemporary Mexico, is a slave to procedure: “He reminded himself that no expert follows the evidence, since in this business the truth always resides precisely where it should not.” For all of Mendoza’s comic asides, however, Silver Bullets is a serious novel about an entire culture in thrall to the ‘Narcos’.

In Mendoza’s poverty-stricken Mexico, the cops are corrupt and the bad guys are the people’s champions, benefactors of communities and heirs to the romantic ideal of the outlaws who destroyed the status quo of the landed gentry.

Mendoza’s style is as dense in its own way as James Ellroy at his best (or worst), with dialogue condensed into paragraphs with little by way of punctuation to tell the reader who is speaking.

The effect is that you pay very close attention to who is speaking or you quickly find yourself lost, an effect that suggests Mendoza is criticising those who only glance at Mexico’s tragedy and then avert their eyes.

It’s a superb novel, a blackly comic tale akin to the bracing realism of Dashiell Hammett’s early work that leaves the reader feeling claustrophobic, grimy and entirely hopeless about Mexico’s immediate future – a country where, as Lefty Mendieta grimly observes, “Nothing is true, nothing is false.”

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