Literatura Policial: Gender, Genre, and Appropriation in Argentine and Brazilian Hard-boiled Crime Fiction
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Rubem Fonseca and the Violence of Narrative
Chapter Two: Patrícia Melo and Masculine Excess
Chapter Three: Ricardo Piglia and the Absent Alternative
Chapter Four: Claudia Piñeiro and the novela negra de mujer
This is a study of gendered ways of narrating and knowing in the work of Rubem Fonseca, Patrícia Melo, Ricardo Piglia, and Claudia Piñeiro, four Latin American authors whose stories and novels about crime are influen ced by the genre of hard - boiled crime fiction. Fiction about detectives and murderers is seen by most critics as fundamentally conservative because of the way it treats crime as an individual aberration in an otherwise ordered world. The hard - boiled scho ol that developed in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s offers a darker view of society and new avenues for social criticism, including the issues of shared responsibility and government corruption; for this reason it has been influential in Latin Ame rican fiction, particularly in the Southern Cone, since the rise of dictatorships in the 1960s and ’70s. However, early US hard - boiled crime fiction also reflects its authors’ reactionary views toward women, sexual minorities, people of color, and immigra nts, and these aspects of the genre have often gone unremarked and unreformed in the critical appropriations made by Latin American authors.
I seek to fill a gap in the critical literature about Latin American crime fiction, which has given significant att ention to changes in the genre but not to the gender of authors, characters, and modes of writing. Critics have tended to look at the literary traditions of various nations – including Great Britain, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico – in t erms of their attitudes toward individual, collective, and state - sponsored violence. Besides noting these national differences, they have studied the frictions between them, the productive use that Latin American authors have made of
the perceived foreign ness of detective fiction, including their use of parody and upsetting of reader expectations. Crime fiction’s approaches to urban violence and state violence are certainly fundamental aspects of the genre and are an important part of my study, but they s hould not be separated from the issues violence against women or the exclusion of women from the public sphere and the world of literature.
I take the word appropriation to have several meanings that can be approached along various axes, of which the mos t commonly studied is the national. A classic detective story, in which a single detective aids the well - intentioned but less clever police in apprehending a single criminal and thus restoring the general order of society, has generally been considered in appropriate if set in a Latin American context. Latin American authors have found a more appropriate model in hard - boiled fiction, which may focus on either a detective or a criminal and which may not end with a simple solution. They have further transfo rmed it by displacing the figure of the detective while keeping the gritty urban milieu, the structure of suspense, and the view of society as irredeemably corrupt. In this way authors from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Cuba, and other parts of the Am ericas have appropriated the genre in a way that corresponds with the Spanish and Portuguese adjectives propio / próprio : they have made it their own.
When I speak of crime fiction, then, it is important to stress that the works I examine here do not fit n eatly into the category of hard - boiled crime fiction, repeating its style and formula without innovation, nor is the Argentine novela negra merely a translation of the French roman noir ; rather it is a distinct tradition that uses the audience’s knowledge of that foreign genre to generate meanings of its own. The
authors I study are influenced by the literary fiction of their own countries and of the United States and Europe as well as the traditions of crime fiction in those countries. They engage with t he conventions of those traditions, pulling out what is useful while discarding what is not, or in some cases exaggerating what is inappropriate in order to draw attention to it. Although many of my critical sources deal exclusively with detective fiction , my study also includes stories about murderers. The English term hard - boiled has come to be associated principally with private detectives but originally also referred to novels about criminals such as the work of James M. Cain (see Abbott 10, Marling i x). In addition to the terms hard - boiled , noir , and novela negra I also use the English crime fiction and the Spanish and Portuguese policial in the broader sense that refers to fiction about police, private detectives, other investigators, and criminals in all their national settings and variations.
Besides appropriating a foreign genre and making it relevant in their own countries, these authors are appropriating a masculinist genre – one that developed in part as a reaction to women’s gains in society and in the literary world – and using it to speak about their cultures’ changing attitudes about gender, sexuality, race, and class . Each of the authors I have chosen to study – Rubem Fonseca and Patrícia Melo from Brazil and Ricardo Piglia and Claudia Pi ñeiro from Argentina – takes a different approach toward the sexism that underlies the structure, plots, characters, and style of narration traditionally associated with hard - boiled fiction. In each case their appropriation is critical and provocative but still preserves some of the sexism that is part of the literary tradition and part of the societies they are writing about.
I choose to limit my study to four authors from Brazil and Argentina, two countries with strong but separate traditions of crime fi ction. Argentina has the longest history of detective fiction in Latin America and, more than in any other Latin American country, it has appropriated the genre as its own, now counting it as an essential part of Argentine literary history. Brazil offers valuable contrast because it follows a different literary orientation, often looking towards Europe and away from the Spanish - speaking part of Latin America while insisting on authenticity and realism from Brazilian authors. Brazilian crime fiction has a lso been used to address different social problems: the general chaos of modern urban life rather than the political violence that is a more dominant subject in Argentine crime fiction.
I see these national literary traditions as distinct but parallel: in both, there is a group of male authors that begins to integrate the conventions of hard - boiled fiction in the 1960s and ’70s, during periods of political upheaval and government repression and censorship. Both national traditions remain strong in later de cades and through the return to democratic government, but they come to be revised from other perspectives, including feminist perspectives. In this introduction I briefly review the history of crime fiction in Great Britain, United States, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as some of the scholarship on that fiction. My chapters then look closely at several works by each of four authors. For both Brazil and Argentina, I look at one of the male authors who helped bring the influence of hard - boiled fiction to that country and shape the meaning it would take on in that national context. Brazilian Patrícia Melo’s work responds in a very specific way to that of her predecessor and mentor Rubem Fonseca, while Argentine Claudia Piñeiro takes a very different, quie ter but perhaps more radical
approach to the genre of crime fiction in general, including the way it has been written by Ricardo Piglia. I have chosen to study these four authors because they are all well known and associated with the genre of crime ficti on in their countries and because they all use distinct strategies in dealing with gender, sexuality, and the question of w ho can tell a story within their fiction.
It would also be useful to compare the approaches to genre and gender in the established na tional traditions of Mexico and Cuba, the other countries studied by Amelia Simpson in her important study Detective Fiction from Latin America (1990), to examine more recent developments in countries like Chile and Colombia, or to look at the history of c rime fiction in Spain and connections across the Spanish - speaking world, as Glen S. Close does in Contemporary Hispanic Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Discourse on Urban Violence
(2008). However, I have wanted to give some attention to the development of the genre in these two countries and, above all, to have room to engage in close readings of the fiction of Fonseca, Melo, Piglia, and Piñeiro. As Greg Forter notes in reference to the scholarship on American crime fiction, interest in the formulas and id eology of the genre has often kept those academics who do study it from giving sustained attention to its prose, while more traditional literary critics “treat crime writing as beneath their notice” because it is popular ( 9 ) . I consider Patricia Melo and Claudia Piñeiro in particular to be understudied and believe it is important to bring sustained critical attention to their work.
History of the genre
English - language crime fiction and its influence in Argentina
Brazil and Argentina are two countries w here readers have long enjoyed imported crime fiction and where adaptations of the genre have by now had a deep influence on the national literature. As in the rest of Latin America, middle - class Argentines and Brazilians read the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie, and other practitioners of the classical mystery or whodunit, often thought of as the British school of detective fiction, from the early part of the 20 th
century on. In Argentina in particular, a country with a s trong British cultural influence, these stories and novels translated and printed by respectable publishers, including Emecé’s Séptimo Círculo imprint, directed by no less of an intellectual heavyweight than Jorge Luis Borges.
Sometimes called novela de enigma or relato - problema in Spanish, these works resemble a logic problem in which the solution is hidden from the narrator and reader at the beginning but can be arrived at through logical reasoning and close attention to clues presented in course of the investigation. After the pioneering works of Poe and Doyle, who established the genre along with the figure of the hyper - intelligent detective ( Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, respectively), the 1920s and ’30s brought the so - called Golden Age of Detec tive Fiction, when authors like Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Belgian George Simenon, and Americans Ellery Queen and S. S. Van Dine worked in variations on a fairly rigid formula of murder, investigation, and solution. The rules that developed fo r defining this genre, including S. S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” (1928) and Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” or “Decalogue” (1929), had mostly to do with fairness: the reader should be put on equal footing with the detective w ithout special tricks like paranormal
phenomena or superhuman powers. In contemporary British writer P.D. James’s words, there should be “a solution at the end of the book which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues presen ted by the writer with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
As can be noted from the list of influential authors above, women writers (including Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and James) have participated in crime fiction throughout most of the history o f the genre and had an important hand in establishing several of its subgenres, in particular the more genteel and formulaic stories and novels of the Golden Age. Initially they wrote about male detectives, then with isolated women who solved individual c ases involving the men in their family. In the early twentieth century Anna Katharine Green and Christie created spinster detectives like Amelia Butterworth and Jane Marple who displayed intelligence and competence as detectives, taking advantage of tradi tionally feminine roles and expanding the possibilities of the genre without offering major challenges to the conservative social order in which they operated. More recent incarnations of the spinster detective appear in “cozy mysteries” such as the US te levision series Murder She Wrote and Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who” series of books. Like classic detective stories generally, these mysteries present murder as an isolated disruption in an otherwise safe and healthy society. The detective restores order and faith in the system by solving the puzzle and turning the perpetrator over to law enforcement.
As appealing as this pattern (whether starring a male or female detective) was for Latin American readers, they tended to associate it with the Brit ish country house where the most famous examples were set and not with their own surroundings. Glen
S. Close traces the history of crime fiction publishing in the Spanish - speaking world as one that involves a good deal of anonymous translating and, at tim es, blurring the boundary between the tasks of translation, editing, and original writing. Spanish and Latin American publishers hired local writers to provide new installments of popular detective series, and whether they translated a work from English t o Spanish or produced another Spanish copy with the same formula and style was unimportant. With these expectations on the part of readers and publishers, many Latin American writers have found it easier to publish crime fiction under foreign - sounding pse udonyms than their own names (a subject taken up by Patrícia Melo in her satirical novel Elogio da mentira ).
In the introduction to her essential 1990 study of detective fiction from the Río de la Plata region, Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba, Amelia S. Simpson g athers statements by Latin American writers such as Brazilians Luís Martins and Moacir Amâncio, Mexican Carlos Monsiváis, and Argentines Adolfo Pérez Zelaschi and Leonardo Castellani to the effect that detective fiction set in their country could never be realistic because it views crime as an anomaly, depicts police officers as honest and law - abiding, and trusts that the guilty will be identified and punished (20 - 22). It may be argued that such stories are not realistic in any national context, nor are th ey intended to be. Even Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, considered by many to be the first example of detective fiction, was published in Philadelphia (in 1841) but set in Paris and featured a French detective; Christie’s Poirot was Belgian and man y other English - language writers have featured more or less “exotic” characters and settings in order to entertain readers and provide a distance that helps their contrived plots seem more believable. But the clash
in cultural attitudes is indeed signific ant for Latin Americans, and many readers have come to consider the foreign setting an essential characteristic of the genre.
Despite these obstacles, Argentine writers have created a strong tradition of crime fiction. Jorge Lafforgue, in his prologue to the 1997 anthology Cuentos policiales argentinos , considers the cuento policial to be one of the most important and typical genres in contemporary Argentine literature: “Ningún otro género…ha estructurado tan raigalmente el sistema de la ficción argentina a lo largo de este siglo” (11). Sergio S. Olguín, in the prologue to a 2003 anthology of true crime stories , concurs: “Si hay un género recurrente en la literatura argentina, ése es el policial; incluso mucho más que géneros autóctonos como la gauchesca, reducido a veces a la fascinación de algunos escritores académicos” (9). Olguín’s claim for the impor tance of the genre, then, is not based on its being original to Argentina but rather on its being recurrent , part of an Argentine literary tradition that goes back over a hundred years. Who would use a pseudonym, he asks, when they could stand in the company of Jorge Luis Borges and Rodolfo Walsh (ibid)?
Walsh worked as a translator and writer of crime stories in the early part of his career and edited Die z cuentos policiales argentinos , the first anthology of crime stories by Argentine authors, in 1953. Although he would later refer to his crime stories as a form of diversion and an easy way of making money, considering them a waste of time in comparison to his investigative journalism and political activism, Walsh was an important figure both in establishing crime fiction as an Argentine genre and in bridging the transition between two very different approaches to the genre: where once it had been an amus ing game, an opportunity for cleverness and parody, in the second half of
the 20 th century it became a vehicle for addressing state violence against citizens. In his nonfiction novels Operación masacre (1957), Caso Satanowsky
(1958), and ¿Quién mató a Ros endo? (1969), Walsh used techniques of detective fiction, including the strategic placement of clues and the withholding of information, in order to increase the suspense of investigative reports about the government’s murder of political activists (see Fo ster 44, Bocchino 24).
Argentine and other Latin American writers and readers began to see new possibilities for setting crime fiction in their own countries once they began to pay attention to the hard - boiled variant of the genre that had developed in the United States beginning in the 1920s. Latin Americans had not been the only ones to criticize classic mysteries as unrealistic. According to Raymond Chandler in his famous 1944 essay “The Simple Act of Murder”, artificiality was the major weakness in th e genre, the problem that provoked Dashiell Hammett and other American writers to create the new version of crime fiction with tough - guy detectives who took a more active role in the work of investigation. The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, said Chandle r, was one of arid formulas that lacked any connection to real life and death: “if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived” (11).
Implicit in this comment and throughout the essay is Chandler’s association of artificiality with femininity and realism with masculinity. In his view, the genre he was criticizing had become too soft; it was dominated by female or effeminate male authors and the re ading preferences of “flustered old ladies – of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages – who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms” (Chandler
16). The detective in classical detective fiction was almost always a man, but in general a man o f “exquisite and impossible gentility” (12) who solved crimes without getting his hands dirty, perhaps without even going outside. In Chandler’s conception, “the authentic flavor of life as it is lived” means as it is lived by men who walk and drive aroun d the modern city; life as it is lived inside private homes, the traditional domain of women, does not count as real or authentic.
Erin Smith, with attention to the original context of pulp magazines in which hard - boiled detective stories were first publ ished, argues that they served to construct the fantasy of a homosocial community of male writers, readers, and protagonists (women figure only as objects and villains within the stories) at a time of increased power for women in both the literary world an d the day - to - day workplace, and Chandler’s language in “The Simple Act of Murder” certainly reflects this attitude (Smith 194 - 196). Given the negative portrayals of female characters, the fact that the first hard - boiled stories were published in Black Mas k , subtitled The He - Man Magazine , and the emphasis on masculinity and hardness in terms like hard - boiled , tough guy , and private dick , it is not surprising that very few women chose to write this kind of fiction for quite a few decades.
The genre of str ong women detectives, “tough girls” whose competence and independence rivals that of the hard - boiled dicks, only emerged in the US from the 1970s on and is still much less common in Great Britain and other parts of the world. The women authors such as Sar a Paretsky, P.D. James, Marsha Muller, and Sue Grafton who created these characters faced the challenges of verisimilitude in a society where very few women did work as police or private investigators, as well as the challenge of
writing sympathetic women characters in a genre that demands that its heroes be tough guys and loners. However, these writers have drawn from each other’s work, establishing a stable, popular subgenre of series of novels with common characters and characteristics: the protagonists are tough women from working - class backgrounds who tend to be aware that theirs is considered An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (the title of the first of James’ Cordelia Grey novels) but who do it anyway. Maureen T. Reddy notes that writers in this group ha ve frequently praised and thanked each other in authors’ notes, articles and interviews, establishing a “community of women crime novelists” ( Sisters in Crime 100). Their characters are also aware of their own similarities and differences from the traditi onal masculine hard - boiled detective, at times questioning whether their use of violence or their defense of civic order is compatible with their own self - image or their feminist beliefs.
But if this group of women has changed the face of the hard - boiled detective in contemporary popular fiction of the English - speaking world, their influence in Latin America so far has been limited. Even though women have been successful practitioners of crime fiction almost from the origins of the genre, they have been l ess represented than men in anthologies, histories, canons, and translations. Latin American authors, including those I study in this dissertation, are far more likely to cite early twentieth - century American writers, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Chandler , Hammett, and Ross MacDonald than Paretsky or Grafton. While the time it takes for works to reach international audiences is a factor, so are prestige and the status of classics, which Hammett and other pioneers of hard - boiled fiction achieved only posth umously, both at home and abroad. Stories and novels originally published in
pulp magazines in the 1920s were reissued as serious literature after their influence had been recognized by critics. Meanwhile, the revisions to the genre made by women and peo ple of color in the United States and other parts of the English - speaking world have had very little effect on the new traditions being built up Argentina or Brazil.
Setting aside the exclusion of women and other drawbacks of the genre, the characteristic of hard - boiled fiction that has been most important to Latin American writers and critics is its “realistic” view of society as essentially broken. Argentines sometimes refer to this kind of fiction as policial duro but more often as novela negra , a trans lation of the French roman noir that pays more attention to the dark view of society than to the central figure of the hard - boiled detective or criminal. The presence of corrupt police and organized crime, the gritty depiction of urban violence, and the f act that even a clever and dedicated detective may not see justice carried out have all made the “American” version of crime fiction more believable and adaptable to Latin American contexts.
In Asesinos de papel , Lafforgue and Rivera note that the major novels of “los duros”, American writers like Hammett, Chandler, David Goodis, and James M. Cain, had been translated into Spanish and sold in Argentine kioskos in the 1940s; however, it was only in the ’70s that major Argentine publishers, including Edito rial Tiempo Contemporáneo with the Serie Negra directed by Ricardo Piglia, effected the “redescubrimiento” and “‘dignificación’ intelectual” of the same authors (18 - 19, 33 n. 6). While Borges and some other writers like Bioy Casares and Marco Denevi conti nued to uphold superiority of classic puzzle mysteries and to deride pulp novels for their chaotic style and emphasis physical violence, others like Piglia, Osvaldo Soriano,
and Mempo Giardinelli were attracted by its gritty depiction of modern cities and its possibilities for social criticism. Through this opposition, Argentines became familiar with the novela negra as a distinct subgenre to a much greater extent than readers in other parts of Latin America. As a result, the attitude that crime fiction w ould be “unrealistic” if given a local context was discounted.
Meanwhile, during and after the military dictatorship that began in 1976, Argentines came to know of unprecedented levels of violence committed by the state. At this point the policial negro b ecame even more useful as a tool for exploring issues like corruption, torture, and collective guilt. Because of their fear and revulsion toward police and government institutions, writes Mempo Giardinelli in his introduction to the volume Latin American Mystery W riters , “detective fiction writers in Latin American countries have no choice but to be hard - boiled. They can no longer write classic fiction” (xviii). At the same time, particularly before the return to democracy in 1983, the fact that the genr e was still associated with popular literature and escapism allowed these writers to explore controversial issues while avoiding the kind of direct criticism of the government that might provoke censorship or retaliation.