The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders

The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders, ed. by Vaseem Khan & Maxim Jakubowski, HarperCollins 2022

This hefty volume of crime stories is an absolute treat for all crime fans, but especially for fans of international crime. With twenty-two gripping tales that range from cosy to chilling to historical to noir, it takes us on a journey through a number of diverse cultures and satisfyingly murderous scenarios.

The volume is ground-breaking in one extremely important respect. As Maxim Jakubowski points out in the introduction, it gathers ‘for the very first time […] authors from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including African-American, Asian, First Nation, Aboriginal, Latinx, Chinese-American, Singaporean and Nigerian’. And as Vaseem Khan rightly asserts: ‘The case for diversity is overwhelming […] Fiction — especially crime fiction — provides a lens onto society […and] when we underrepresent minority backgrounds, we run the risk of aiding divisiveness rather than helping to correct it’.

Khan also highlights the important role readers play in terms of ‘being willing to take a chance on books featuring diverse characters’. Well, this reader is very enthusiastically raising her hand, and I know many others will be too (not least anyone who’s enjoyed Bridgerton, which has done more to break down racial barriers via another popular genre — historical romance — than many a more earnest endeavour. Seriously, it’s genius).

And of course the volume is a great resource: in addition to featuring stories by well-known names such as Walter Mosley, Abir Mukherjee and Oyinkan Braithwaite, it gives tasters of other authors you might not yet know, but will definitely be keen to check out. The biographical notes at the back provide very helpful overviews of the authors’ profiles and works – such as David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel Winter Counts, which had a wonderful reception last year and is now firmly on my TBR list. Riches indeed!

The authors showcased are: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Abir Mukherjee, S.A. Cosby, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, J.P. Pomare, Sheena Kamal, Vaseem Khan, Sulari Gentill, Nelson George, Rachel Howzell Hall, John Vercher, Sanjida Kay, Amer Anwar, Henry Chang, Nadine Matheson, Mike Phillips, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Felicia Yap, Thomas King, Imran Mahmood, David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Walter Mosley.

Many thanks to Vaseem Khan and HarperCollins for sending me a review copy of the very handsome hardback (which incidentally would make a really fabulous gift…)

Sound of the 70s: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet was the Night (Mexico)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Velvet was the Night, Jo Fletcher Books 2021

First line: He didn’t like beating people.

Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those ridiculously talented authors who can turn her hand to any genre. She’s probably best known for her novel Mexican Gothic (it does what it says on the tin), but describes her latest novel as ‘noir/pulp fiction’, albeit with an unusual historical twist.

Velvet was the Night is set in 1970s Mexico during the ‘Guerra sucia’ or Dirty War, which saw the right-wing government abduct, imprison and often murder those viewed as a threat to its ideology and power – especially left-wing students and working-class activists. Audaciously, one of the novel’s main characters is a member of Los Halcones – the Hawks – a shadowy group of heavies trained by the government (with the covert backing of the CIA) to disrupt student demos and worse. The codename of the young man in question is El Elvis, after his musical idol, and it is through his eyes that we observe both the internal workings of the group and the psychology of an individual who’s got himself into a serious fix.

Velvet‘s other key figure is Maite Jaramillo, a secretary terrified of spinsterhood, who escapes the everyday grind and turbulent politics around her through a love of music and Secret Romance magazines. She also harbours a grubby secret of her own: she likes to steal small items from her neighbours’ apartments while pet-sitting for them. It’s when beautiful, bohemian student Leonora disappears –  and thus fails to reclaim her cat – that Maite’s humdrum world gets turned upside down.

Along with the characterisation, a key strength of Velvet was the Night is its tightly plotted narrative. Its ending feels satisfying and complete, but could also serve as an intriguing beginning to a whole other story. Another very nice touch is the playlist at the back of the novel, which showcases the songs woven into the text – a clever nod to the subversive status of certain kinds of music in 1970s Mexico. You can find it on Spotify here.

True crime tidbit: many who work in the world of publishing, like my good self, have been following a bizarre, long-running case involving fake identities and a phishing scam whose aim was getting hold of valuable manuscripts prior to publication. News comes this morning that the FBI has made an arrest… Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but it’s quite a breakthrough in what’s an absolutely fascinating case for bookish types – not least in relation to the question of motivation. It’ll make a great podcast.

#17 Sam Hawken / The Dead Women of Juárez

Sam Hawken, The Dead Women of Juárez (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011). An outstanding crime novel set in the corrupt Mexican border city of Juárez, infamous for its high rate of ‘feminicidios’ (female homicides)  5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Roger Kahn wrote, ‘Boxing is smoky halls and kidneys battered until they bleed,” but in Mexico everything bled in the ring.

The Dead Women of Juárez is one of those crime novels that transcends genre and can be thought of, quite simply, as an excellent piece of writing. Set in the Mexican border city of Juárez, just across from El Paso, Texas, it draws on the legacy of American writers such as Hemingway to explore in succinct, precise, but highly evocative language the brutalising nature of life in Juárez, and the violence and corruption that pervade its politics and policing.

Ciudad Juárez is arguably the perfect place to set a crime novel, given its dubious real-life distinction of being the murder capital of the world. But Hawken chooses to focus on one specific group of the city’s murder victims, namely the 400 women killed there since 1993, and the estimated 3000 (that’s three thousand) women who have simply disappeared and are presumed dead – the victims of sexual attacks and ‘femicide’.

The novel explores the abject failure of the authorities to deal with the feminicidios, and the toll that the murders take on the women’s families, from the perspective of two highly damaged individuals: Kelly Courter, a washed-up American boxer reduced to the role of punchbag for talented younger fighters in the ring, and Raphael Sevilla, a narcotics investigator jaded from his many years on the police-force, who is hiding a serious drink problem. The link between the two is Paloma Esteban, Courter’s on-off girlfriend, the sister of a local drug dealer Sevilla is trying to nail, and a campaigner for the group Mujeres Sin Voces (Mothers without Voices), which seeks justicia (justice) for Juárez’s victims of femicide. When yet another woman goes missing, Courter and Sevilla find themselves drawn into an investigation that will radically change both of their lives.

As well as being a hard-hitting crime novel, and a scathing critique of power, corruption and misogyny, The Dead Women of Juárez offers readers an eye-opening depiction of contemporary Mexican society, whose impoverished majority endure punishing and poorly-paid working conditions in the maquiladoras – factories that turn out consumer goods for American companies. While only a stone’s throw away from America, the workers of Juárez may as well inhabit a different planet, given the disjunction between their lives and those of more affluent U.S. citizens living a few miles away. On another level, the novel also functions as a study of failed masculinity, through the symbolic figure of the boxer who undergoes a series of highly bruising rounds with life. The characterisation of Courter is superb, as is that of Sevilla, and the novel is worth reading for these two nuanced and very human portraits alone.

I especially like the way this book openly identifies itself as a campaigning crime novel (one of its key sources is Teresa Rodriguez’s journalistic study The Daughters of Juarez). In his afterword, Hawken states that his aim was to ‘shine a light on these femicides’ and the state’s failure to respond adequately to the epidemic of violence against women. Only a handful of cases have ever reached court, which is extraordinary given the scale of the murders and disappearances. (Imagine for a second how we would feel if the same were happening in the British city of Birmingham, which like Juárez has a population of around one million people…). An additional problem is that the murders have been overshadowed by the drug wars in the area, in spite of the work carried out by Amnesty International  and women’s groups such as Voces sin Echo (Voices without an Echo) and Las Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black). Hawken emphasises the importances of securing justice for the women before the law (providing an interesting contrast to the way that justice is depicted in the narrative), and his novel is a great example of how the crime genre can be harnessed to raise awareness of real crimes and miscarriages of justice.

The Dead Women of Juárez was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2011, which means that this highly accomplished piece of work is – remarkably – Sam Hawken’s debut novel. Beautifully written and with a tremendous sense of place, it stands head and shoulders above many others in its field. Along with Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, it is one of my stand-out crime novels of the year.

Mrs Peabody awards The Dead Women of Juárez a superlative 5 stars.

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