7 Latin American Noirs to Dive Into
By Eloisa DiazOctober 30, 2021
Just as you can tell a lot about a person from their books, you can tell a lot about a person from their noir preferences. These are seven favorites from my shelf that show what kind of reader I am, and what I was inspired by while writing my novel, Repentance.
The Latin American In Cold Blood: Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping
After much success writing fiction (and even a Nobel prize!), Gabo returned to his journalistic roots to give us an account of the kidnapping of seven prominent members of Colombian society during the hard years of narcoterrorism. While it is non-fiction, it reads like a thriller. For me, it was an early introduction to the use of language when magical realism doesn’t cut it anymore, and a masterclass in content giving tension to form.
The private consequences of public terror: Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling
A Colombian professor with no ties to the drug world survives a drive-by shooting, which triggers his unexamined PTSD and grants him a chance to look back on the effects of growing up under a reign of terror. I read this at the beginning of writing Repentance, and loved Vázquez’s choice to refuse big gestures and instead rely on the quiet power of his language, and his account of people getting used to and surviving “normalcy”, whatever that might look like.
The historical fiction noir: Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs
Padura moves away from his Inspector Mario Conde series to focus on a failed writer who, struggling to finish his novel, remembers an encounter from thirty years ago, in which a stranger told him the story of Ramón Mercader, the man who on orders from Stalin assassinated Leon Trotsky while he was in exile in Mexico. The novel beautifully interweaves international political intrigue with the social realities of present-day Cuba.
The queen of social noir: Claudia Piñeiro’s Catedrales
It’s difficult for me to pick one Piñeiro, the definitive chronicler of today’s Argentina, since I’ve read almost all since Thursday Night Widows, about a murder in a luxurious gated community. Her latest, Catedrales, a whodunnit in the world of illegal abortions, I read during the last stretch of revisions for my novel, and it assured me one could be unapologetically political and also write great fiction.
The bank heist noir: Ricardo Piglia’s Burnt Money
Based on real events (a bank heist and shootout in 1960s Buenos Aires), I approached it to examine its phenomenal rhythm, which doesn’t subtract from its depth. What ended up interesting me most was Piglia’s nuanced exploration of masculinity, which given the many male characters in my novel, I took as reference.
The one I was afraid of reading for fear of copying: Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s The Buenos Aires Quintet
PI Pepe Carvalho’s 17th adventure has him travelling from Barcelona to Buenos Aires to look for his long-lost cousin, a man who survived the dictatorship and who is now again in trouble. Thank God I didn’t read this while I was writing my novel, since it has everything I wanted Repentance to be: a cynic-yet-tender, food-obsessed investigator who is too sarcastic for his own good, ghosts – real and not – of the dictatorship, and a thorough consideration of Argentina’s idiosyncrasies and its attempts to move on from a dark past.
My latest discovery: Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season
I’m always on the lookout for a good noir and this one’s fantastic. In the Mexican countryside, the body of the “village witch” is found floating in a canal. Mixing folk tales, abortion, murder, corruption and a disappeared stash of gold, this is a novel brutal in language and brutal in theme. An intense read that made me glad I’ve caught the noir fever.
Given this little sample, I think you’ll find that Latin American noir (if one groups the very different traditions under one name) is generally not “openly” noir. It’s noir as vehicle, noir as catalyst, noir as metaphor, noir as excuse. The priority is always another: finding the fitting language to search for the truth – often a social and/or political one. Happy armchair travel!
*Author Photo Credit: Antonio de la Llama
About Repentance by Eloísa Díaz:
Two moments in time, twenty years apart, one last chance at redemption. What would you do with a second chance?
Argentina is in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship. Inspector Joaquín Alzada’s work in the Buenos Aires police force exposes him to the many realities of life under a repressive regime: desperate people, terrified people and —worst of all—missing people. Personally, he prefers to stay out of politics, enjoying a simple life with his wife Paula. But when his revolutionary brother Jorge is disappeared, Alzada will stop at nothing to rescue him.
The country is in the midst of yet another devastating economic crisis and riots are building in the streets of Buenos Aires. This time Alzada is determined to keep his head down and wait patiently for his retirement. But when a dead body is found behind the morgue and a woman from one of the city’s wealthiest families goes missing, Alzada is forced to confront his own involvement in one of the darkest periods in Argentinian history—a time of collective horror and personal tragedy.