Book review: The Acid Test

As crime fiction of all genres has become a global phenomenon, no doubt there are those to whom the book will appeal. Personally, however, it’s just too dangerous a world for my head to inhabit.

Élmer Mendoza

Translated by Mark Fried

MacLehose Press, £14.99

DESCRIBED on the cover of the book as the ‘Godfather of Narco-Lit’, Élmer Mendoza’s latest offering The Acid Test is a no-holds-barred account of the daily grind endured by homicide detective Edgar “Lefty” Mendieta as he battles with the drug cartels who have hijacked society in his native Mexico, even operating under police protection.

Lefty is an honest cop in a city where the acceptance of corruption is the rule. 

The title of the book is open to interpretation, ‘acid’ being the hallucinogenic drug which alters your perception of the outside world, or the acronym for ‘assessment criteria indicative of deception’ — a method of police interrogation aimed to increase the ability to assess credibility during interviews.

The impact of drug traffickers in Mexican culture is so pervasive that the term ‘Narcoculture’ has evolved, even spawning its own genre of literature — Narcoliteratura’ or ‘Narco-Lit’. 

Narco-Lit serves both a witness and an exploration of the realities of drug crime in a country where journalists have been intimidated into silence or killed in trying to report on the activities of drug trafficking organisations, which, not surprisingly, has led in most cases to the abandonment of the profession.

Mendoza’s story of sordid violence is centred in the Mexican city of Culiacán, and is populated by competing drug cartels, corrupt politicians, corrupt judges, drug runners, and table dancers. 

When Lefty comes upon the beautiful exotic dancer Mayra Cabral de Melo’s mutilated body dumped in a field, he immediately recognises the victim.

Having spent many an evening in her gracious company, he is deeply angered by her death. 

He takes her murder investigation very personally, and in the quest for the perpetrator, comes in contact with a plethora of murky characters who inhabit the narco world and who are customers at the nightclub where Mayra worked; drug lords, politicians, arms dealers, and failed boxers.

The book is populated by so many characters that it is almost an impossibility to keep track of them all (in fact no less than 88 characters are outlined in the initial pages, most of whom appear to die off as the novel progresses).

The crime investigation unfolds like an unsolvable puzzle and an encounter with the FBI and the father of the president of the US results in even more dead bodies and puts a further spanner in the works.

The narration is raw and very visual; it’s as if you are watching the violence unfold. The scenes are deeply rooted in reality, a pattern of dead bodies dumped in public places instils a sense of powerlessness in the reader, not to mind the Mexican general public.

Women, initially portrayed as victims, finally emerge, too, as having power when Samantha Valdes has a narco empire bequeathed to her and becomes the boss of the Cartel del Pacifico, traditionally a male role.

Original Mexican culture, its deserts, natural environment, and culinary arts are obviously close to the author’s heart, but overall his portrayal of Mexico is that of brutal and macho place.

Narrated in the language of the streets, the story proves confusing as it is written in an unrelenting stream of consciousness from Lefty’s own head.

You have to admire Mendoza though, as I imagine writing a book about the Mexican drug business can be a lethal choice.


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