Kiss the Detective by Élmer Mendoza

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Kiss the Detective by Elmer Mendoza front cover

Translated by Mark Fried — Sometimes called the godfather of narco-lit, Mexican author Élmer Mendoza sets his latest book in Sinaloa state and Kiss the Detective is the fourth in the Lefty Mendieta series. Mendoza has a distinctive writing style, but for those with the patience to get the hang of it, there are definite rewards.

Like some other modern writers, Mendoza doesn’t use quotation marks and almost never identifies the speaker with ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ Context mostly solves that issue. He goes further, though, and rarely indicates a change in speaker by starting a new paragraph. So, you get a paragraph like this short one between Angelita, the secretary for the Sinaloa state police’s homicide department, and Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, the homicide chief detective and the story’s protagonist:

“Angelita had two messages for him: one from the Commander, the other from Edith Santos. And who is that? A friend of Zelda’s, she’s helping her with the wedding. You know about the wedding? For two months. Don’t forget I wrote up her leave request. So everybody knew except me.”

After a few pages of attentive reading the conversations track pretty easily. What seems confusing at first reveals itself to be artful writing, excellently translated! And it turns out that in any number of situations – say, when two gangsters of fairly equal power are talking – knowing for sure which one is speaking actually doesn’t matter all that much. The exhilarating feeling is that you’re submerged in a river of dialog that sweeps you along through his intriguing plot along with a number of memorable and entertaining characters.

Operating in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mendieta is well acquainted with Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel. The story opens with an operation against Valdés that offers enough firepower and double-dealing to conjure Don Winslow’s The Border. She’s injured and with no time to wait for an ambulance, her crew drives her to the nearest hospital, where she’s put in intensive care.

As the cartel members keep their own watch, nervous Mexican army troops and federal police surround the hospital waiting until the moment she’s well enough to travel. Then, they’ll transport her to a military hospital in the capital. Word is, they’re coming down on her hard. The army was content to wait her out, “…and if she died the country would come out ahead.” Still, perhaps the greatest immediate risk she faces is the unknown professional assassin hired to finish her off. And Mendieta too.

The Pacific Cartel fiasco technically belongs to the police department’s narcotics unit. Mendieta should keep his nose out. Anyway, he has his hands full with two unrelated murders: a snappily dressed young fortune-teller whose body was found with 15 bullets in it; and a small-time crook killed clutching a woman’s purse he’d just snatched. However, Mendieta can’t resist some hospital visits to see how Valdés is faring and whether her people know anything about his two cases. In exchange for information about the possible killers, he agrees to help smuggle her out of the hospital. There’s no going back from this decision. His standing in the police is jeopardised, not to mention his safety.

A call from Mendieta’s ex-wife in Los Angeles raises the stakes even further. Their son Jason has apparently been kidnapped by some unknown party, yet no ransom has been demanded. Now not only are the Mexican authorities out to get him, he has to negotiate with the FBI as well. The spectre of betrayal lurks everywhere.

The book helpfully provides a list of the characters – all of whom seem to be called alternately by their given names or nicknames. Edgar Mendieta, for example, is ‘Lefty.’ Probably you’ll make good use of this list and wish more books had them.

While Mexico’s President Obrador may have declared the war on drugs to be over, Mendieta sees the bodies keep piling up. Despite threats to his career, his family and himself, he keeps going, finding himself a new girlfriend, sharing beers with friends, holding his head up, a (mostly) honourable man in a dishonourable world. Whose side are you on, Lefty? Sometimes the sides are hard to tell apart.

If you give Mendoza’s unusual approach to telling a story a chance, you may find his lively, honest writing refreshing. Fried’s translation reads beautifully.

For more rich Latin American crime fiction, try the authors listed here.

MacLehose Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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