“After all what self-respecting film noir detective would share an office with a sewer expert, an upholsterer, and a plumber?”
While An Easy Thing is not the first novel from author Paco Ignacio Taibo II to feature PI Hector Belascoaran Shayne, the novel is Taibo’s American debut. And it’s in this novel that the detective, who’s already survived six attempts on his life, loses an eye.
Taibo’s marvelous fictional detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne is based in Mexico City. He lives in a tiny apartment in the Roma Sur and shares a “grimy” office with a plumber, an engineer and an upholsterer. Belascoaran used to be an engineer by trade, but after gaining a “certificate in detection from a Mexican correspondence school,” he now makes a marginal living solving the bizarre cases that come his way. The novel is set in 1977, and Belascoran’s Irish mother has just died. As Belascoran and his siblings Elisa and Carlos discover, her death opens up secrets about their long-dead father.
While Belascoaran struggles with personal problems–the death of his mother, new knowledge about his father, and the occasional letter from a woman he may or may not love, Belascoaran takes on no less than 3 PI cases. The first case involves the murder of an engineer at the Delex factory, the second involves the daughter of a sexy soap opera actress, and the third case involves an investigation into rumors that Zapata was not killed in 1919. Each case reflects some aspect of Mexican society. The Delex factory, for example, is in the middle of an ugly labor dispute, and Belascoaran sniffs that the management wants to frame workers for the engineer’s death. The soap opera star, Marisa Ferrer has risen to stardom on her looks and the liberal use of her gorgeous body, and Belascoaran notes that her clothing shrinks as her fame grows. And the detective’s pursuit of the rumors of Zapata’s escape reiterates the legends created when any great revolutionary is murdered, and “Wild rumors [are] produced in desperation by a people deprived of their leader; it was a natural defense against an enemy that controlled both media and myth.”
Since Belascoaran was an engineer before he became a PI, the Delex case hits a chord with memories of his past life as a bourgeois husband with a wife whose “foremost thought was to get a new carpet for the dining room.” Solving the Delex case and making sure that innocent workers aren’t framed for the crime becomes a matter of importance for the detective:
“It was a debt that came out of his willing submission to the status quo, his disdain for workers, all the times he’d driven through a disaster zone. He needed to go back to where he’d come from and prove to himself that he’d changed.”
Juggling the cases with his personal life, Belascoaran recruits his office mates as unpaid detectives, and as usual Belascoaran adopts unorthodox methods to solve his cases, often using a shotgun approach to flush suspects out into the open. In this novel, Belascoaran spends many lonely nights with his “nocturnal” office mate sewer expert El Gallo Villareal who shares his philosophy on sewers. In one great scene the detective and the sewer expert spend an evening calling in over 100 threats to dynamite hotels, and El Gallo, who turns out to be a natural at this sort of thing, becomes increasingly animated and inventive with each call.
Scarred and one-eyed Belascoaran is a marvelous, intriguing literary creation and certainly deserves a place in the fictional detective Hall of Fame. In some ways he reminds me of Sam Spade: laid back, living in a tatty office, not getting excited about too many things, disdainful of authority, and a man who believes living independently means more than making a fortune. Belascoaran is all these things, but he also has a self-deprecating humour, is vulnerable and has very human faults (his sweet tooth manifests itself in his addiction to Mexican soda pop, and he also makes a lot of mistakes). He’s not a ‘tough guy’ in the traditional sense, and he’s certainly not a methodical detective. But in spite of his faults–or perhaps because of them–he’s an endearing and enduring character.