Latin American Mystery Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Readers in Latin America countries of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean have long been attracted to mystery fiction. Because of their different perceptions of corruption in their public institutions, including their legal systems, the development and presentation of protagonists in their mystery and detective fiction varies markedly from the models one finds in North American mystery novels.

Mystery literary works in Latin America fall into two distinct groups. The first group, known as novelas de enigma, follows the classic mystery model of whodunits, which present readers with crimes and investigators who solve those crimes using logic and judicial resources. The novela de enigma formula usually presents investigators as gentlemanly amateurs who are detached from others who are involved in the crimes. These works generally do not evaluate, either directly or indirectly, the sociopolitical realities of the societies in which their mysteries are situated.

The second group, novelas negras, which are equivalent to hard-boiled detective novels, evolved as a negative reaction to the lack of realistic representations of social, psychological, and economic realities of the modern world in Latin American mystery fiction. In the United States, Prohibition, the Great Depression, gangsters, and other forms of social unrest created a populace that expected more realistic and critical representations of...

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Latin American Investigations and Forensics

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Police departments in North American and European nations generally have extensive crime laboratories in which forensic analyses can be conducted. In those nations, such facilities are available to most crime investigators at almost any level, local, state or provincial, and federal. Although the quality of the equipment and the time required to process evidence may vary widely, systems of cooperation among different jurisdictions allow for widespread use of the facilities.

In Latin American nations, the situation is somewhat different, but most large municipalities have excellent forensic facilities. Many Latin American countries also maintain national forensic laboratories, often located within federal university systems. However, two things separate the Latin American forensics model from those of North America and Europe. First, police departments in small Latin American communities and those in almost all rural areas have little or no access to advanced forensics. Second, limited financial resources and backing restrict the use of the facilities that do exist to only high-profile cases and those that involve the wealthiest members of society. The same observation might also be made about facilities in North America and Europe, but to a far lesser extent than in Latin America.

A general shortage of verifiable evidence gathering and processing leaves most crime solving in Latin America to individual detectives, police officers, and members of the military, many of whom are underpaid and overworked. Some Latin American nations still have lower-level police officials who deal only with such matters as traffic violations and minor crimes and either do not receive salaries or receive only token salaries. Such officers count on “tips” to make ends meet. Moreover, because of the lack of access to forensic facilities, officers of local agencies must spend disproportionate amounts of time gathering information that could be more efficiently obtained from judicious use of forensics. For all these reasons, and others, there are many opportunities for abuses of power, extortion, and other forms of corruption.

Spain and Portugal as Models for Latin America

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The development of Latin American mystery novels generally parallels that of mystery novels in North America, Spain, and Portugal. During the nineteenth century, American mystery writers tended to follow European models; consequently, their works tended to focus on their investigators’ personalities and prowess and on the unique characteristics of the crimes. By the time the American stock market crashed in 1929, Prohibition was ushering in a new realm of lawlessness and gangsters in the United States, and a new group of mystery writers were intent upon exposing the flaws of American society, judicial systems, and government in their mystery works. For example, the novels of Raymond Chandler, who set his stories in Los Angeles, were among the first in the United States to bring realism to the forefront in mystery fiction. Chandler exposed his readers to gangsters, political opportunists, corrupt police, drugs and the generally violent and unpredictable nature of crime in Los Angeles. His enforcers of the law typically become part of the problem and showed that it was not only the criminals who could not be trusted.

Historical differences between Latin America and Spain impeded the arrival of the novela negra in the old country. From 1936 to 1975, Spain endured the repressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Although the general public image of the guardia civil, or paramilitary federal police, was that of fraudulent enforcers of a...

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Latin American Social and Historical Foundations

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction deals with issues of power. These issues may be based on financial wrongdoing, such as robbery and extortion; personal power, such as physical abuse and murder; or society-based matters, such as political and religious conflicts. In one form or another, all novels deal with the interactions among the protagonists and these real-world issues. A key to understanding what aspects of the style, structure, and approaches to societal value systems are unique to Latin American mystery fiction is to understand the differences between the perceptions about matters of fairness, justice, and redemption held by members of different cultures.

North Americans are individualists, and most North American mystery fiction portrays investigators as somewhat lonely individuals confronting problems. These generally lonely protagonists not only have to resolve crimes and restore justice and honor in their society, but also they hold an enduring belief in the correctness of their sociopolitical system. In their view, anything can be achieved and the future offers endless possibilities to those who invest enough effort and faith in the system. North Americans tend to accept what their education has taught them: that while the sociopolitical realities of their culture may be flawed, individual effort can nevertheless find solutions to problems that threaten society.

With few exceptions, authors from the United States have held an abiding trust in the...

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Roots of Latin American Mystery Writing

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most literary critics regard Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as the first mystery fiction work because it focused on the use of deductive reasoning and systematic investigation to solve a crime. That story and many other English-language mystery stories that followed were quickly translated into Spanish and Portuguese for an expanding readership in Latin America.

Novelas de enigmas were originally quite formulaic in content. In a typical North American or European story, a representative of a law-enforcement agency, usually a detective, investigates a crime. suspense is developed through an intense focus on the illegal act itself. The social and political realities of the culture in which the crime has taken place are of little or no concern to the story. This assumption of honesty in the political and law-enforcement segments of the society in which these early mystery fiction works are situated created a genre that was almost always written in English and then translated for Latin American consumption.

With some exceptions, mystery stories written by Latin Americans and located within Latin American nations did not appear. The reason was that the legal systems in many Latin American nations were not receptive to the basic idea of gentlemanly investigators working within systems that exist to deliver justice to the wronged and punishment to the guilty. This view of a reassuring society that had the confidence of its citizens in judicial matters was not entrenched in Latin America. The less admired and even less accepted authority of the police force and a perceived lack of fairness in the judicial systems in Latin America did not promote native writers of mysteries to emulate works of crime and punishment in the highly formulaic manners of the European and United States writers.

During the formative period of Latin American mystery writing, many authors used anglicized pen names and situated many of the stories in the United States or Europe. This allowed their readers to accept the validity of the idealized social setting their stories presented.

Cultural Shifts

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

More authentic Latin American mystery works arose as the genre outgrew its almost naïve faith in the decency of society in relationship to crime to one incorporating more realistic views of sociopolitical realities of contemporary Latin America. The arrival of the novela negra opened the door to a form of mystery novels that would allow native Latin American authors not only to express their creativity independently of North American and European norms but also to use their writings to critique their own societies and governments.

During the 1920’s, North American mystery writers attempted pragmatically to portray a society that was struggling with organized crime and its violent and corrupt influence in a capitalist system. This new subgenre removed the assumption of an honest society in which investigations could proceed without reference to cultural realities. Criminal mysteries would no longer be presented as aberrations in societies. Instead, the sociopolitical, cultural, and psychological traits that motivate crime become part of the message of the authors. The ever-present realities of machismo, hypocrisy, unbridled ambition and greed, illusions of glory, visions of power, and the full range of human and social distortion were presented as integral parts of the Latin American mystery fiction work.

This form of expression, sometimes described as determined realism, is perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the Latin American mystery fiction. Novelas negra do not avoid realistic and critical portrayals of Latin American societies; instead, they expose the sociopolitical problems as being the major causes of crime and the lack of public faith in Latin American judicial systems.

Some Latin American women authors have created characters, usually detectives, who live in the United States but reflect the social realities of both countries and present feminist viewpoints that emphasize women’s roles in the expanding Latino immigrant population in the United States. Included in this group are Marcia Muller and Edna Buchanan.

Latin American mystery writings can be geographically grouped among four regions that have produced the vast preponderance of Latin American mystery fiction. Two of these regions are in the South American continent, one is geographically part of North America but culturally part of the Central American divide between North and South America, and the third is a Caribbean island nation.

River Plate Region Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the most prolific areas of Latin American mystery writing is the vast area around the mouth of South America’s Rio de la Plata that encompasses the metropolitan Buenos Aires region in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay and extends into the surrounding Argentine and Uruguayan countrysides. Argentina provided the earliest works of Latin American mystery fiction.

Before the 1930’s, most mystery and detective novels published in the southern part of South America were translations of foreign authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Carlos Olivera (1854-1910) translated Poe’s writings into Spanish for an ever-expanding readership in Argentina. Some writers, such as Horacio...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A prominent characteristic of Mexican mystery literature, especially during the 1920’s to 1950’s, its formative years, has been its strong linkage to nationalist themes. Although the formative period produced the typical whodunit form of novelas de enigma, Mexican writers did not use foreign settings or foreign pen names to make their works more acceptable to their readers. Translated North American and European works were readily available to Mexico’s many mystery fiction fans, but Mexican writers themselves used local settings for their backdrops. Antonio Helú (1900-1972) is a good example of an early Mexican mystery writer. Many of his short, satirical stories deal with class conflict and the antipathy of the...

(The entire section is 370 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Imported and translated novelas de enigma were long readily available in Cuba, but Cuban writers produced no original mystery fiction until 1971. In that year, Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña published Enigma para um domingo (1971; enigma for a Sunday). Since then, original detective works have proliferated in Cuba. However, due to strict government censorship controls, all Cuban mystery works have been required to conform to the government’s socialist goals. The works must not only entertain, but also educate the public. It is therefore not surprising that the dominant theme in Cuban mystery fiction has been struggles against social inequality and correction of past vices.

Cuban mystery works differ from...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mystery fiction has enjoyed at least modest popularity in Brazil since the 1930’s. As in many Latin American nations, most of the mysteries that Brazilians read were translations of books imported from the United States and Europe. The relatively few original Brazilian works were written in the formulaic novela de enigma style. Considered a somewhat disreputable form of literature in Brazil, mystery works received little attention from the literary establishment until much later than in most of Latin America.

The overwhelming use of satire, parody, and farce in Brazilian works has set them apart from works from other Latin American regions. The very first Brazilian detective novel is an example. Cowritten by...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Biron, Rebecca E. Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of Twentieth Century Latin America. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Analysis of various Latin American mystery works and authors, with an emphasis on masculinity and machismo features found in the works. Indexed.

Braham, Persephone. Crimes Against the State, Crimes Against Persons: Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Compares and contrasts detective fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Evaluates various works in the context of the globalization of national economies. Indexed.


(The entire section is 310 words.)