Three Notes on Argentine Crime Fiction

Hernán Maltz

Universidad de Buenos Aires, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas

With thanks to Ciara Gorman (Queen’s University, Belfast)

Argentine literature could be characterized as peripheral in the global domain (at least compared to the literary traditions of European countries). This marginal status could be valid as well when considering crime fiction in a worldly way. However, this country presents a vigorous and complex tradition in the genre. In this sense, the following notes do not intend to provide a complete review of crime fiction in Argentina. They are just some aspects about its history, its problems, authors and works.

I. Main writers of national literary system are linked to crime fiction

One significant aspect of crime fiction in Argentina is that some of the main national writers practiced it. Jorge Luis Borges, the most well-known, not only wrote short stories, such as “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (1941), “La muerte y la brújula” (1942) or “Emma Zunz” (1948), but he also meditated on the genre in brief essays and personal texts: for example, he established his own rules for creating crime fiction (in “Leyes de la narración policial”, available in Spanish here, on pages 48-49:, and he even debated about its origins in his controversial argument with Roger Caillois regarding the latter book Le roman policier (Buenos Aires: Editions des Lettres Françaises / Sur, 1941; and Borges’s polemical review and Caillois’s answer are collected in the book Borges en Sur 1931-1980, Buenos Aires: Emecé).

During the twentieth century, other central writers approached the genre in novels, short stories and essays: Roberto Arlt, Rodolfo Walsh, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Juan José Saer, Ricardo Piglia, and many others. In this respect, researcher and critic Sandra Contreras, in her book on César Aira’s works (Las vueltas de César Aira, Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2002), even posited the presence of a sort of “crime fiction imperative” (the need for any aspiring writer in the Argentine literary field to publish crime fiction).

But despite all this accumulation of literary capital, it is still also true that Argentina was not an exception, in the middle of the previous century, to the sort of sentence that considered crime fiction not to be “real” literature: we can find a proof of this kind of judgement in Adolfo Prieto’s Sociología del público argentino (Buenos Aires: Leviatán, 1956), in which he conceives of the genre as “infraliteratura” (infra-literature, as opposed to high literature). However, crime fiction in Argentina proliferated, as it was given a sense of legitimacy by those writers mentioned above. By the end of the century, in the introduction of his anthology Cuentos policiales argentinos (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 1997), the critic Jorge Lafforgue stated that crime fiction is deeply bound up in the roots of all Argentine literature.

II. Three significant periods of the genre

Without being exhaustive, we can mention at least three important periods for the genre in Argentina.

The first one surprisingly started in 1877 (a very early date for such a “young” literature as that of Argentina), when Raúl Waleis, pseudonym and anagram of Raúl V. Varela, published La huella del crimen, the first crime fiction novel written in Spanish (Buenos Aires: Imprenta y Librerías de Mayo [Biblioteca Económica de Autores Nacionales]; and re-edited only 132 [!] years later: Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2009). During the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next one, we can find short stories in the pens of Paul Groussac, Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, Vicente Rossi, and Horacio Quiroga (who, despite being born in Uruguay, spent most of his adult life in Argentina, and his works are usually recognized within the Argentine literature). Some of the short stories of these significant contributors to the genre can be read in an anthology edited by Román Setton: El candado de oro: 12 cuentos policiales argentinos (1860-1910) (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2013). In this period, there is a variety of styles and the genre is still not quite institutionalized (although we can find quotations of international authors: for example, Raúl Waleis, in the introduction of La huella del crimen, notes the inspiration he drew from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau).

We can identify another important period in the decade of 1940, with Borges’s success in implementing and spreading an abstract model of crime fiction (such as the one exposed in “La muerte y la brújula”). Other figures, all of them close to Borges, contributed with works in the line of British mystery fiction: Los que aman, odian (1946), by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; El estruendo de las rosas (1948), by Manuel Peyrou; and even some fictions by Rodolfo Walsh, such as those included in Variaciones en rojo (1953) (soon Walsh concentrated on non-fiction and published Operación Masacre [1957], a few years before Capote’s In Cold Blood [1966]). But the abstract model defended by Borges also included a parody of the genre, with the primary example of Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi (1942), by Honorio Bustos Domecq, pen-name for the duo of Borges and Bioy Casares. Additionally, they both directed the collection El Séptimo Círculo (for the publishing house Emecé), which was a significant vector for the spread of crime fiction in Argentina (the editorial side of crime fiction in this country has other important collections, such as La Serie Negra, directed by Ricardo Piglia in the 1970s, among dozens of collections and publishers specialized in the genre).

A third significant period surrounds the decades of 1960 and 1970. During this time, the hard-boiled genre (originated in the decades of 1920 and 1930 in the United States) had its own representation in Argentina, in the form of “tough narratives” (which often contained parodic features). Just to mention some of them: Triste, solitario y final (1973), by Osvaldo Soriano; Los tigres de la memoria (1973), by Juan Carlos Martelli; El agua en los pulmones (1973) and Los asesinos las prefieren rubias (1974), by Juan Martini; “La loca y el relato del crimen” (1975), by Ricardo Piglia; “Orden jerárquico” (1975), by Eduardo Goligorsky; Noches sin lunas ni soles (1975), by Rubén Tizziani; Últimos días de la víctima (1979), by José Pablo Feinmann; and (once again, without being exhaustive) “Versión de un relato de Hammett” (1984), by Juan Sasturain (Piglia’s and Sasturain’s tales are included in the above-mentioned anthology, Cuentos policiales argentinos, probably the best and most complete anthology of crime fiction in Argentina to date).

III. Three conceptual issues

Among the conceptual problems regarding the possibility of an Argentine crime fiction, we could think about three nuclei: the nationalization of the genre; the representations of the police institution and State forces; and the rise of feminist perspectives and gender studies.

In the mid of the twentieth century, many writers posited the question of whether or not “Argentine crime fiction” existed. In the introduction of Los casos de Don Frutos Gómez (1955), a book of hilarious short stories starring the superintendent Don Frutos Gómez, Velmiro Ayala Gauna established that, indeed, it was possible to create a national genre: he expresses that the figures of the rastreador (pathfinder) or even rural men have as much as capacity of observation and knowledge as the European detectives.

Second issue: here we should remind readers that one of the usual names of the genre in Argentina is “policial” (for example: género policial, cuentos policiales, or just policial). This label implies some sort of (debatable) proximity to the name of the police and its adjective in Spanish (noun: policía; adjective: policial), and in extension to the Army and other State forces. This is a very sensitive point: the last military dictatorship in the country (1976-1983) caused many obscure deaths (among many tragic consequences), and, in this regard, many writers, in their critic essays, tend to question the possibility of the genre in Argentina, at least in the form of the traditional whodunit: is it possible to reach the truth if the State hides information and causes deaths? Among many writers and critics, José Pablo Feinmann and Carlos Gamerro addressed this problem and its implications (for example, the trouble of an investigator who belongs to a terrorist State and the need to look for other detective figures separated from public institutions), in two intelligent articles: “Estado policial y novela negra argentina” (by Feinmann, and included in a book edited by Giuseppe Petronio, Jorge B. Rivera and Luigi Volta, Los héroes “difíciles”: La literatura policial en la Argentina y en Italia, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1991) and “Para una reformulación del género policial argentino” (by Gamerro, and included in El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos, Buenos Aires: Norma, 2006).

Last but not least: the rise of feminist perspectives had its consequences also in crime fiction. During this century, some women writers gained visibility. Probably the most important of them (at least in terms of sales and international circulation) is Claudia Piñeiro, with novels such as Tuya (2005), Elena sabe (2007), Betibú (2010), or the most recent Catedrales (2020), which includes the topic of abortion (linked to a sensitive and recent issue of the public agenda: its legalization). More female writers, with works close to crime fiction, are Mercedes Giuffré (Deuda de sangre, 2008), Tatiana Goransky (¿Quién mató a la cantante de Jazz?, 2008), María Inés Krimer (Sangre Kosher, 2010), Selva Almada (Chicas muertas, 2014) or Alicia Plante (Verde oscuro, 2014), among others. In some cases, fictions even include a feminist perspective, as in the case of Krimer’s 2019 novel, Cupo.

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