Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Paco Ignacio Taibo II is one of Mexico’s best-known and most prolific writers. And his series featuring PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne is highly regarded. It’s more than time that this feature included some of Taibo II’s work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on An Easy Thing, the second of his Belascoaran Shayne novels, and the first to be translated into English (For those interested, Days of Combat/Días de Combate is the first Belascoaran Shayne novel).
Héctor Belascoaran Shayne is a half-Basque/half-Irish independent detective living in Mexico City. He shares his offices with a plumber, an upholsterer, and a sewer and drainage specialist. While he usually doesn’t have a long list of clients, he finds himself with three new cases.
In one case, a man he meets at a bar wants him to find the legendary Emiliano Zapata. The novel takes place in the mid-1970s, so if Zapata is alive, he’d be in his nineties. All of the evidence suggests he was killed in a shooutout decades earlier, but the man who hires him is convinced Zapata is alive.
There’s also actress Marisa Ferrer. She hires Belascoaran Shayne to prevent her seventeen-year-old daughter Elena from committing suicide. It seems that Elena’s had two accidents that her mother thinks are really suicide attempts. She’s hoping that the detective will be able to get the girl to trust him enough to tell him what has upset her so much that she’d want to kill herself.
And then there’s the case brought to him by the Santa Clara Industrial Council. An engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli was murdered in his office at the Delex consortium. The council wants Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the murderer was, and bring them the proof.
The detective takes all three cases, and begins to work on them. The Zapata case is complicated by the legend surrounding the man, and by the fact that almost no-one believes he could still be alive. Not even Belascoaran Shayne really thinks he is. There are also complications to the Elena Ferrer case. For one thing, she’s unwilling to tell the detective what’s got her upset and what she knows. And then she’s abducted. And as for the third case, matters are made difficult by serious conflict between the union and management at Delex. The situation is simmering as it is, and gets more serious as the novel goes on. And when Belascoaran Shayne finds out that the council has its own agenda when it comes to catching the killer, things get even more difficult.
It’s not that Belascoaran Shayne doesn’t care about earning his fees. But he is fascinated by Zapata, even if he doesn’t really believe he could be alive. He cares about what happens to Elena Ferrer, too. And as the story goes on, he has his own reasons for wanting to get to the truth about Cerulli’s death. So, despite the obstacles, he perseveres.
An Easy Thing was first published in 1977. So, the Mexico City Taibo II presents is the city of that era. There’s a great deal of union unrest, and many people feel strongly about the existing class differences. There are drugs, but this story takes place before the real rise of more recent drug lords and kingpins. So, the drugs trade isn’t as strong an influence. Corruption, on the other hand, is rife. And yet, the city has its attractive side, and although Belascoaran Shayne sometimes hates it, he also loves it. As the story goes on, we see the sometimes-ugly side of life in Mexico City, but Taibo II doesn’t neglect the vibrant, beautiful side of life there.
Taibo II is a political activist and has been heavily involved in the union movement. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that one element in this novel is political. Corruption, class issues, and the entrenched ‘haves’ play their roles in the story. So does Belascoaran Shayne’s attitude towards those in high positions.
The novel is told from Belascoaran Shayne’s point of view (third person, past tense). So, we get to know his character quite well. He is philosophical, even a bit fatalistic. He knows that solving these cases isn’t going to change very much about Mexican society. Here, for instance, is what one of his office mates has to say about Mexico:
‘In Mexico, nothing ever happens, and even if something does, still nothing happened.’
Belascoaran Shayne agrees:
‘Even if _____ went to jail in the midst of a colossal scandal, ___’d still get out two years later when the dust settled.’
And yet, he does his best for all three cases. And without spoiling the story, I can say that he has his ways of settling scores and levelling the proverbial playing field.
Readers who enjoy stories where the guilty party is led away in handcuffs will notice the fact that there isn’t a climactic scene like that in this novel. In that sense, it’s not a happy novel. But there are some moments of dark wit. And there’s a very pragmatic feel to what happens in the story.
The novel is gritty, so there’s violence in it, some of it ugly. And Taibo II doesn’t gloss over what happens. But the violence isn’t in there for shock value. The same might be said of the language.
This is a PI novel, but it’s not what you might call a typical (if there is such a thing) example. The pace isn’t rapid-fire, and there are several scenes that are almost more literary than crime-fictional. Readers who like jolt-a-minute stories will notice this. That said, though, Belascoaran Shayne doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet, as the saying goes.
An Easy Thing is a portrait of Mexico City during the simmering mid-1970s. Its focus is three cases that show different sides of the city, and it features a detective who belongs in that setting. You might even say he personifies it in his way. But what’s your view? Have you read An Easy Thing? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 23 January/Tuesday, 24 January – What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler
Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan
Monday, 6 February/Tuesday 7 February – In the Woods – Tana French