Latin America

A concise history of Cuban crime fiction

Emilio J. Gallardo-Saborido

Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

Jesús Gómez-de-Tejada

Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL)

Universidad de Sevilla

In 2015, the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature winner was the Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes. The jury’s report highlighted, among other achievements, his interest in listening to “popular voices and the lost stories of others” and described his work as “a superb adventure of dialogue and freedom”. For crime fiction lovers, the granting of this award was a real boost since that genre had been questioned many times in different academic circles. Besides, although Padura has cultivated various genres, he stands out especially for being the creator of a series of detective novels starring an unusual hero or anti-hero, Mario Conde.

From his initial appearance in the 1991 novel Pasado Perfecto, Conde will be the key element around which Padura turns the tables on the crime novels written mainly in Cuba during the previous two decades. His critical, sometimes disappointed, but also lucid vision invites readers to review Cuba’s past and present, starting precisely in such complicated years as the early 1990s.

Even though crime fiction had not been profusely cultivated in Cuba before the revolutionary triumph of 1959, some texts deserve at least a brief mention. In 1926, the Social magazine published the collective novel Fantoches. Its plot is focused on the attempted murder of a young woman from a wealthy family. It is interesting to highlight how this work, written by eleven different authors, close to the grupo minorista (Alfonso Hernández Catá, Carlos Loveira, Jorge Mañach, etc.) to a greater or lesser extent, constitutes an avant-garde detective literary entertainment. In fact, it chronologically precedes a similar initiative carried out by members of the London Detection Club, such as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, captured in the 1931 novel The Floating Admiral.

Among the pioneers of Cuban detective fiction, the work of Lino Novás Calvo also stands out, especially known for the literary biography El negrero. Vida de Pedro Blanco Fernández de Trava (1932) and the non-generic volumes of short stories La luna nona y otros cuentos (1942) and Cayo Canas (1946). Between 1948 and 1952, Novás Calvo published eight crime stories in the Havana magazine Bohemia, of which he was editor-in-chief. These stories are characterised by a noirish flavour, a modality that he had defended in theoretical articles and his collected letters with Professor José Antonio Portuondo –another of the fundamental voices in the conceptualisation of the Cuban detective genre–. In addition, he gives a leading role to crime news and places the narrative focus on the revenge of the victims against their repressors. In 1991, José María Fernández Pequeño compiled these stories in the volume 8 narraciones policiales.

After the symbolic date of 1959, we had to wait until 1971 to find a detective novel that would achieve a broad resonance and serve as a pillar for future productions within the genre. We are referring to Enigma para un domingo, by Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña, a book awarded in the 1969 Cirilo Villaverde Novel Competition. Strongly inspired by the American hard-boiled novel, Cárdenas knew how to combine this foreign influence with the ideological defence of the revolutionary project. From now on, a new version of crime fiction (both detective and espionage –or counterespionage, as it is called in Cuba) would rapidly develop, adopting an apologetic tone. Thus, throughout the early 1970s, we witnessed a singular phenomenon: the creation and evolution of a new genre, that we could label as “Cuban revolutionary crime fiction”, sponsored by various government bodies (through literary competitions or mass editions). Furthermore, a corpus of critical texts that defined the genre’s features appeared at the same time, or even earlier, as the publication of the most representative works of this generic modality; works that, indeed, multiplied quantitatively in an outburst that had its epicentre in the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, this multiplication of pieces contributed to its quality reduction. Another reason for the impoverishment of this literature was the excessive weight given to the ideological message. Nevertheless, among this extensive post-revolutionary production, some authors showed enhanced literary skills, as is noticed in novels such as Joy (1978) by Daniel Chavarría and Y si muero mañana (1980) by Luis Rogelio Nogueras.

Present-day contemporary Cuban crime production is characterised by both the survival of the revolutionary and the emergence of neo-noir fiction. For its part, the revolutionary modality prolongs, in essence, the features outlined since the early 1970s and privileged in the competition Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution (sponsored by the Home Office), which since then has acted as one of the main instances of legitimisation and is still in force today. Among the authors faithful to this trend, Leonelo Abello Mesa stands out, having won the competition several times with titles such as Miami: otra vez (2006), Misión en Langley (2007) and Nieve en La Habana (2010).

Alongside this continuous revolutionary detective novel, a crime fiction linked to the Spanish-American neo-noir trend emerged and developed that, in Cuba, was initiated by Leonardo Padura Fuentes by creating the National Revolutionary Police officer previously mentioned, Mario Conde. His kinship with the neo-noir side of the genre places him alongside other detectives in Spanish and Latin American literature, such as Héctor Belascoarán, by the Mexican narrator Paco Ignacio Taibo II; Heredia, by the Chilean Ramón Díaz Eterovic; or Pepe Carvalho, by the Spanish Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. This aspect would grow, especially in the 1980s in the Hispanic peninsular and Latin American sphere, when the revolutionary model was still maintained in Cuba, albeit on the wane. The main features of neo-noir fiction allow the reader to look into the depths of the most corrupt and muddied side of the societies in which the crime stories are set. These plots usually place readers in front of a dark and perverse authority, ultimately responsible for the torn situation of, generally, a large city that is harassed by the economic and political upper spheres of the State.

Mario Conde made his name in the tetralogy “Las cuatro estaciones” (1991-1998), in which he had to solve four crimes committed in a Havana marked by corruption and famine in the crucial year of 1989. Subsequently, the trajectory of this character persists through five more titles: Adiós, Hemingway (2001) and La cola de la serpiente (2001; 2011), La neblina del ayer (2005), Herejes (2013) and La transparencia del tiempo (2018). While La cola de la serpiente adds a new case set in the recurring year 1989, the rest of the titles are projected forward in time to the 21st century. These works present various stories where the detective and historical genres intertwine with the life adventures of an increasingly aged Conde, who, having resigned from his job as a police officer, works as an old bookseller and occasional detective.

Other names such as Amir Valle and Lorenzo Lunar Cardedo also enrich the Cuban neo-noir scene. Valle’s biting novels comprise the “Descenso a los infiernos” series (2001-2008), which, through five titles, tells the story of the adventures of the police officer Alain Bec and the old delinquent Alex Vargas in the marginal neighbourhood of Centro Havana. On the other hand, Lunar’s raw vision is reflected in the trilogy “El Barrio en llama” (Que en vez de infierno encuentres gloria, 2003; La vida es un tango, 2005; Usted es la culpable, 2006), set in a suburb of the provincial city of Santa Clara, a series of novels starring police lieutenant Leo Martín. Finally, other writers and animators of the genre, such as Rebeca Murga, Rafael Grillo and Vladimir Hernández, stand out on the current Cuban scene.

In conclusion, the trajectory of Cuban crime fiction shows some distinctive features and others that are common to other Latin American countries. At the beginning of the 20th century, crime fiction, in a relatively incipient way, encountered its first exponents on the island. In this pioneering phase, the influences of the British tradition were mixed with the hard-boiled style, both marked by their desire to adapt the foreign patterns to the island’s atmosphere. In the 70s of the last century, the revolutionary, strongly ideologized, style emerged, which, after a solid hegemony for two decades, from the 90s onwards, shared the stage with the neo-noir style. This last version of the genre in Cuba has grown in line with its treatment in other Hispanic spheres, to the point of having acquired a significant national and international projection.

Further readings:

Braham, Persephone. 2004. Crime against the State. Crime against Persons. Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fernández Pequeño, José M. 1994. Cuba: la narrativa policial entre el querer y el poder (1973-1988).Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente.

Gallardo-Saborido, E. J., Gómez-de-Tejada, J. 2017. La literatura policial del Bloque del Este en la revista cubana Enigma (1986-1988). Revista de Letras, 57.2: 53-71.

García Talaván, Paula. 2014. La novela neopolicial latinoamericana: una revuelta ético-estética del género. Cuadernos Americanos, 2.148: 63-85.

Padura, Leonardo. 2000. Modernidad, posmodernidad y novela policial. La Habana: Ediciones Unión.

Sánchez Zapatero, Javier, Martín Escribà, Àlex. 2014. La novela criminal cubana. Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica, 40: 171-189.

Simpson, A. S. 1990. Detective Fiction from Latin America. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Uxó, Carlos. 2021. El género policial en Cuba. Novela policial revolucionaria, neopolicial y teleseries. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien: Peter Lang. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3726/b17689

Wilkinson, Stephen. 2006. Detective Fiction in Cuban Society. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien: Peter Lang.

Translated by Laura Cabeza Muñoz

Acknowledgments:

The authors of this piece would like to mention the kind contribution of the Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL), University of Seville, Spain, in relation to its translation from the Spanish original version. A shorter version of this text (in Spanish) has been used as script for a podcast of the series “Háblame de CSIC”: https://delegacion.andalucia.csic.es/hablame-de-csic/. We gratefully acknowledge that the cover of the magazine Misterio proceeds from an original from the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Havana.


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: https://ahira.com.ar/ejemplares/hoy-argentina-no-2/), 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.