Category Archives: Taibo, Paco Ignacio II

An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“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.

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Frontera Dreams by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“Out here the narcos have us all on the payroll.”

Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo’s intriguing novels featuring private detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne have deservedly gained a following in America. Frontera Dreams, which according to the author is number 7 in the official chronology, is not one of his best. This novella begins when the teenage daughter of actress Natalia Smith-Corona, hires PI Belascoaran. Natalia, a woman who named herself after a typewriter in order to sound “exotic” is missing. Belascoaran knew Natalia in the idealism of his high school days, and he still nurses an unrequited sexual passion for his lost love. The detective sets off to find Natalia, and his search takes him to the surreal border towns of Mexicali, Ensenada, Tijuana, Nogales, Cuidad Obregon, and Chihuahua—La Frontera: “that strange name used to designate a bunch of territories branded by the dubious privilege of sucking face with the United States.”

Thanks to Belascoaran’s long-standing crush on Natalia, she is “like a persistent fragrance in the mind of” this solitary private detective, but the reality is not quite the same. Soon Belascoaran is involved in a mess that includes: an indiscreet Televisa producer, a crazed stalker, the stolen prostitutes of Zacatecas, narcotraficantes, DEA agents, and various colorful characters. Frontera Dreams takes a look at Belascoaran’s past, and his sentimental illusions about Natalia, and then records the detective’s coming to terms with reality concerning the woman who has remained a significant memory for about 20 years.

Frontera Dreams is not Taibo’s best. The novella is sketchy and assumes a prior knowledge and affection for the author’s hero, Belascoaran. If you’ve never read Taibo, then it’s a good idea to start elsewhere, but if you are a Taibo fan (like me), and enjoy this author’s wry sense of humour, you will not be disappointed. Taibo’s novels may seem simply fiction, but as part of the “generation of 68” the author’s novels cannot be separated from the generation’s “collective memory”: the massacre at Tlatelcoc, for example, and this explains why Belascoaran shed his middle-class life (Days of Combat) to become a PI who meditates on the lives of Che, Pancho Villa, and Emilio Zapata for inspiration.

The ‘official chronology’ of the first 8 Hector Belascoaran Shayne novels:
Days of Combat
An Easy Thing
Some Clouds
No Happy Ending
Return to the Same City
Amorous Phantoms
Frontera Dreams
The Defunct Dead

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Some Clouds by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“Hector, who didn’t believe in logical thinking, hadn’t even brought a notebook. He just sat and listened. Waiting for something. Waiting to know where to start, a street, a corner. Something to lead him into other people’s lives, other people’s deaths, other people’s ghosts. One way or another it all boiled down to a question of streets, avenues, parks, it was a question of walking, of pecking around and sorting out. Hector only knew one method. He’d throw himself bodily into someone else’s story until the story became his own. He tried to picture the streets around the insane asylum in Cuernavaca. He didn’t like the idea.”

When Some Clouds begins, detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne is trying to find some peace of mind following the death of an eight-year-old boy. But Belascoaran’s retreat to an isolated beach of Sinaloa is interrupted by the arrival of his sister, Elisa.

Elisa tells Belascoaran a strange, intriguing story: her lifelong friend, Ana nicknamed ‘Anita’ has recently returned to Mexico from New York City. It seems that Ana’s father-in-law, the owner of some furniture stores in downtown Mexico City has died after a heart attack. Anita and her husband fly from New York to the funeral in Mexico City, only to learn that one brother has been brutally murdered in the family home, and that the third brother who witnessed the crime and survived is “living in a nuthouse” in Cuernavaca.

After the funeral, Anita and her husband discover that they have inherited an amazing fortune, which includes millions in cash, real estate and a bottling plant. This sounds like a stroke of good luck, but then things turn really ugly….

Some Clouds is a wonderful entry in the Hector Belascoaran Shayne series. Belascoaran is reluctantly dragged into Anita’s dangerous situation, and he throws himself into the case with his usual reckless disregard for personal safety or monetary gain. Soon Belascoaran is up to his neck in intrigue, corruption and “intricate political alliances.”

In this tale, author Taibo even manages to write himself into the story as a writer, and in one brilliant scene, Belascoaran, the world-weary, scarred, one-eyed detective shares his worldview (and a few literary tips) with the fictional version of Taibo. It’s a weird but marvelously understated meeting that should delight fans who’ve long become used to the author’s idiosyncratic approach to literary rules–in one novel in the Belascoaran series, the detective is killed, but he returns from the dead with little explanation in next novel (Return to the Same City). Personally, I was glad to see the battle-scarred detective back to fight another day, and my joy superseded my regard for literary rules.

Once again Taibo paints a bleak picture of a city so tainted with corruption “something like seventy-six percent of the serious crime” is conducted by the police. And so it naturally follows that not only is Belascoaran more or less on his own (except for the help of a couple of wrestler friends) in the investigation of the roots of Anita’s inheritance, but also as usual, he certainly doesn’t want to contact the police for help, since the odds are that they are involved in some way.

Belascoaran tends to be a bit of a loner, resorting to solitude to heal from his mental and physical wounds, but Some Clouds does include a sub-plot of sorts with Belascoaran’s office mate, Carlos the Upholsterer–a man determined to solve the Mystery of the Exotic Lingerie by any and all means possible. Taibo wisely uses flashes of humour to alleviate his dark tales of corruption and murder, and while on one level, this certainly makes them much more enjoyable, humour also makes Belascoaran a much more human and sympathetic protagonist. Belascoaran is a marvelous literary creation–haunted by the scenes of corruption and murder, he still manages to maintain his wry sense of humor as he solves crime in his own inimitable fashion and “dig[s] a little dirt out from the under the fingernails of power.”

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Return to the Same City by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“You start with an arms deal for the CIA and finish it for a group of Puerto Rican, gangsters in New Jersey. You sell a lot of shit to the Colombians, and you end up building a company to sell illegal crocodile leather because the business popped up along the way and you end up laundering the money of some people, informing others, and conducting commerce with the remaining easily duped mortals. Who are you? Who do you work for? There comes a time when only you know. Now even those who pay you are sure anymore. The business dealings of the Company are obscure, like the designs of Confucius.”

Author Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s novel, No Happy Ending concluded with his much-loved, one-eyed detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne dead. Return to the Same City finds detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne back, returned from the grave–along with an explanation of sorts from the author. These hard-boiled detective novels featuring Belascoaran are addictive, and I’ll admit I’m hooked. Taibo balances the dire violence of his tales with Belascoaran’s quirky world vision. Take the premise of a one-eyed detective, for example. In one part of Return to the Same City, Belascoaran is tailing someone, and he acknowledges how very easy it is to spot a man who’s sporting an eye patch. You can’t after all, he reasons, just blend into the crowd. Belascoaran has seen enough murder, crime, injustice and human savagery to dive into despair, and the scars on his body are roadmaps of his past, but somehow Belascoaran retains his sense of absurdist humour while he rolls with each catastrophe.

When the novel begins. Belascoaran is having a great deal of trouble adjusting. He’s nervous, and after a “week of paranoia and distrust. Irrational anxiety that came like a tropical storm, and filled his palms with sweat” he isn’t exactly eager to take a case–not even when the case comes in the form of a damsel in damsel who removes her blouse and reveals her breasts.

The damsel in distress is a persistent woman, and after haunting Belascoaran’s life for a few days, he agrees to take her case. It seems simple enough: a man named Luis Estrella is returning to Mexico. The woman says that Estrella, a slimy Miami drug dealer with connections to the Cuban mafia, is responsible for driving her sister to suicide. She wants Estrella to rot in a Mexican jail, and she believes Belascoaran is the man to do the job.

But after tailing Estrella and hooking up with Dick, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, Belascoaran begins to realize that Estrella isn’t just some lowly scumbag. He’s one of those shady figures with multiple identities–a shape shifter, on the CIA payroll–he’s one of those slimy men who glide seamlessly between countries, dining with generals, torturers and dictators, greasing the plans for drug deals, and weapons deals.

Weaving in the assassinations of Olof Palme and Orlando Letelier, the murder of Che Guevera, the sinister DINA, the CIA, and Michael Townley, Paco delivers another dark tale, and this time around Belascoaran is as endearing as ever. Confessing secret bath fantasies and shepherding two ducks around his home, Belascoaran must manage to stay alive while his new adversary would prefer him dead. And in a country so corrupt people create their own justice, Belascoaran must somehow balance the scales, stay alive and stay sane in a bleak dark, violent world.

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The Uncomfortable Dead by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos

“But he did not believe in the innate evil of politicians; he believed that if you became one for too long you end up turning into a prick, and that having power too long creates an obsession with power, and when your political power is over you’re left with money, which is another kind of power, and that’s why there are so many open drawers to stick your hand into, so many abuses; and to keep the country the way they wanted it, Mexico’s leaders in recent years had established a kind of supreme law of the land (one that was never made public and was kept in the supreme closet of the supreme leader), which dictated things like: The only principle of survival is the principle of authority. When your principles are in the gutter, the best thing to be is a rat. The Revolution will do us justice. Finders keepers, losers weepers. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The law of the budget is to take your fill; if you don’t steal it, someone else will. “

Novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson and strategist for the Zapatistas, co-author The Uncomfortable Dead, a novel written by “four hands and twenty fingers.” Each co-author writes alternate chapters, with Marcos writing the odd-numbered chapters and Taibo writing the even-numbered chapters.

Marcos’s protagonist is Elias Contreras who works for the Investigation Commission in the Zapatista territories in Chiapas. Taibo’s protagonist is Hector Belascoaran Shayne, a one-eyed Private Investigator who works in Mexico City and whose scars are the “signposts” to his past:

“You see this eye I’m missing? It was blown out by a former member of the Judicial Police … now deceased. You know why I’ve got one leg longer than the other? From a shotgun blast fired by the same people who organized the halcones. I spent seven months and three days in a prison cell in Tabaco for proving election fraud was committed by the PRI some years ago. I was beaten by a mob led by a priest in Tlaxcala who was trying to exorcize the Pokemons, and it was me who gathered the evidence to put Luisreta, the banker, in prison.”

When the novel begins, Elias is sent to Mexico City (The Monster) on a mission, and Belascoaran is working on a mysterious case involving a man who was murdered back in 1969. The dead man, Jesus Maria Alvarado, was murdered as he left prison, and yet Alvarado leaves messages on answering machines referring to a mystery man known as Morales. The messages left by the dead Alvarado hint that Morales is a major player in Mexico’s Dirty War, responsible for the disappearances, torture, and murder of numerous Mexicans. Elias and Belascoaran eventually join forces to track down Morales, and they make an unlikely, but effective team in this surprisingly humorous mystery novel. Marcos even writes himself (and his favorite novel) into the plot, and believe me, he doesn’t stint when it comes to lacing the plot with sly digs at a fictional version of “El Sup.”

With references to actual events (the Acteal Massacre, the right wing group El Yunque) and Zapatista beliefs and organization, the novel represents a sardonic look at the politics of Mexico–a country in which “demonstrations only served to provide the Army with target practice.”

Akashic Books 268pp.

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