Hilario Peña – Págale al Diablo (Pay the Devil)

zzz Págale al Diablo

I’ve been enjoying Hilario Peña’s novels for several years now. A great fan of such writers as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, he has published a series of highly enjoyable “novelas negras” that bring a distinctive Mexican perspective, and a liberal dose of black humor, to the classic noir genre. My personal favorites are La Mujer de los Hermanos Reyna and Juan Tres Dieciséis.

So many great noir novels have been made into films – films noir – that when I read one, I find the characters, locations and settings easy to visualize. I picture dark streets, heavy shadows, low camera angles, claustrophobic spaces and stressed characters. Peña’s novels are no exception. They tend to be filled with gangsters, crooked politicians, treacherous women, bad cops, tough-talking detectives and clueless victims. But they have always been novels.

When the clerk at Libros Gandhi in Mexico City handed me the slim volume, I thought there was a mistake. But when I saw the graphics, and the artwork inside the book, I realized I was in for a new and fun experience.

The story is pure noir… and pure Peña. It focuses on Telma, a classic femme fatale, and Silverio, the poor schnook who falls under her spell. The plan is that Silverio will kill Telma’s husband, and they’ll use the insurance proceeds to go together to Long Beach. Not the most glamorous plan, but a clear call to action for Silverio. Things go well at first, with Siverio even finding a component of revenge to soothe his largely untroubled conscience. But the complications begin when he hears disturbing things about Telma, and obstacles are thrown in the way of their plan, including blackmail, infidelity and betrayal, gangsters with guns and a boxing match we know is rigged. We just don’t know which way it’s rigged.

As I whistled through the book, I realized I wasn’t getting the sort of descriptive passages or back stories that I’ve come to expect in a novel. Still, I was getting beautiful pictures of the people and action in my head. And of course, the dialog was as hard-boiled as you could hope for. There wasn’t enough art work to consider it a graphic novel, though, and it’s too long to be a short story. Perhaps it’s a novella, but it felt kind of like a screenplay.

He may disagree, but I believe Hilario Peña has written a film noir… and I had a lot of fun with it.

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Martín Solares – No Manden Flores (Don’t Send Flowers)

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What do you do when you’re rich, your daughter has been kidnapped, and you live in a city on the gulf coast of Mexico? You can’t go to the police or the army, because they may actually be the kidnappers. Anyway, they’ll milk you for cash, regardless of whether they lift a finger to help. You can’t ask any of the 3 gangs that control the region, because if you ask the wrong one, you’ve just made yourself a target to them. And you can’t trust your personal security staff, because they may have facilitated the kidnapping by selling their inside knowledge of your activities.

Martín Solares’ excellent novel, No Manden Flores, takes place in an unnamed city in Southern Tamaulipas that has been devastated by gang wars and corruption. It’s a place where you can’t go out for dinner, because the restaurants close in the evenings due to the gang violence. It’s a place where you can’t get medical assistance after a beating because the medical staff deserts the clinic in fear that the gangsters will come to finish the job. And if you take the wrong bus, you might find yourself hijacked and pressed into slave labor in a criminal compound guarded by a virtual army of thugs.

The answer to the kidnapping question is that you hire a smart, street-wise detective, a former cop who solved a high-profile murder case a few years ago. And you hope to heck he doesn’t cross paths with the city’s police chief who framed a suspect to collect the reward for that murder case – and has been trying to kill your detective ever since.

The focus of the book is divided equally between the detective and the chief of police, and the irrational, apocalyptic challenges they both face in accomplishing their radically opposite goals and intentions. The author treats us to an abrupt surprise with the structure of the book, which led one reviewer to describe it as 2 books. I’m not convinced. Despite the richly drawn characters and tight plotting, it seems to me that the book is not about the detective and the police chief, or about the kidnapping, as much as it is about the time and place in which the story is set.

The book’s title happens to be the same title as a famous article by author Jorge Ibargüengoitia, written as a bittersweet remembrance of his mother at the time of her passing. I read the book as a commentary on the direction of the gulf Coast, and Mexico itself. Don’t Send Flowers is a stern warning… and a great book.

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Desde Amazon:

No manden flores cuenta la historia de Carlos Treviño, un ex policía que se ve obligado a volver al Golfo de México a fin de investigar la desaparición de una rica heredera.

Partiendo del sur de Tamaulipas, cerca de Paracuán, y viajando hasta el centro de la violencia en la frontera norte, Treviño deberá seguir el rastro de la mujer, e indagar entre los grupos criminales que se disputan el control de ciudades y carreteras. En la misma medida, evade la persecución del tenebroso Comandante Margarito, jefe de policía de La Eternidad, que lo busca para matarlo. La rivalidad entre estos dos personajes con perfil de tiburones elevará la tensión durante siete días a niveles nada recomendables.

La crítica ha opinado:

“Una radiografía seca, aguda, del horror en el que vive el Golfo, la red de complicidades, los alcances de la tragedia. Una novela ruda, directa, emocionante, que será de lectura obligada para quien quiera asomarse al infierno en que se ha convertido el Golfo (y México a la vez)” -Antonio Ortuño-

Rosca de los Reyes

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I was in a Mexican bakery in Los Angeles the other day, and wondered what the big round cake was. It was a Rosca de los Reyes, the traditional cake to celebrate Epiphany on January 6th. According to tradition, that’s the day the 3 wise men arrived in Bethlehem.

rosca (1)

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes (kings’ ring) is a Spanish and Latin American king’s cake pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany.
Although the name indicates that it should be round, the “rosca de reyes” generally has an oval shape due to the need to make cakes larger than 30 cm across for larger parties. Recipes vary from country to country. For decoration, fig fruit, quinces, cherries or dried and candied fruits are used.
It is traditionally eaten on January 6, during the celebration of the “Día de Reyes” (literally “Kings’ Day”), which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men. In most of Spain, Spanish America, and sometimes, Hispanic communities in the United States, this is the day when children traditionally get presents, which are attributed to the Three Wise Men (and not Santa Claus or Father Christmas). In Mexico before children go to bed, they leave their shoes outside filled with hay or dried grass for the animals the Wise Men ride, along with a note.
The tradition of placing a trinket (figurine of the Christ Child) in the cake is very old. The baby Jesus hidden in the bread represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from King Herod’s evil plan to kill all babies that could be the prophesied messiah. Whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine is blessed and must take the figurine to the nearest church on February 2, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria). In the Mexican culture, this person also has to throw a party and provide tamales and atole to the guests. In US communities with large Mexican and Mexican-American populations such as Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago, the celebration includes the Mexican hominy stew pozole, which is made for all one’s neighbors.
In Spain, roscones bought in pastry shops have a small figure hidden inside, either of a baby Jesus or little toys for children, as well as the more traditional dry fava bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned “king” or “queen” of the celebration, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay for the next year’s roscón or Epiphany party.

n Argentina, there is a similar tradition of eating the rosca on January 6, although no figurine is included. A similar version of the pastry with whole eggs baked on top is served on Easter as rosca de Pascua.
In some places, the roscón de reyes is replaced by panettone, also baked with trinkets inside.
In France, a similar pastry known as a galette de rois (made with puff pastry and almond cream) is eaten on Epiphany, and in the US, the formerly French/Spanish city of New Orleans LA continues this tradition later in the year with their Kings’ Cake, a rich yeasted bread decorated with colored sugar and eaten before Mardi Gras.