The pulp and noir revival has, in my opinion, produced uneven results--a few gems, but a lot more books that seem fixated on the more lurid aspects of the genre. The first two scenes of A Death in Mexico concerned me--a gruesome murder of a pretty young woman, an act of domestic violence that seemed gratuitous and superfluous to the plot, and an interaction between the couple that found the body with a stereotype of the fat, lazy and corrupt Mexican cop. Now, all these things do appear in real life: some murders are gruesome, some men do hit their wives/fiances/girlfriends and many cops, in Mexico as elsewhere, do accept bribes. But their rapid fire delivery made me wonder if this was going to be the kind of misogynistic "thirdworldsploitation" vehicle I generally try to avoid.
Thankfully that's not the case at all, and I suspect Woods uses this setup as a red herring. To begin, the protagonist, Inspector Hector Diaz, is a virtual inverse of the corrupt third world cop stereotype: he's thin, he's honest, he doesn't take bribes and he won't "play the game." He just wants to find out who killed Amanda Smallwood, a gringo sexpot who modeled at the local art school and, as it turns out, didn't actually sleep with the (many) men who wanted her. To find the killer, he has to delve into San Miguel's expat-dominated art scene, its imbroglios and petty jealousies, while navigating unreliable subordinates, a hostile mayor and various shady characters along the way.
We are led to think the victim's murder is a sex crime, but then we're given ample reason to doubt that. Smallwood isn't at all a "tramp" or "tart," words used by peripheral male characters to describe her. And generally speaking, the women who populate A Death in Mexico are anything but the helpless or too-far-gone types that proliferate in classic noir. Instead, Woods introduces us to a series of strong, capable, sexually liberated and independent figures. The sexism of 1930s-50s America and France, where most classic noir was written, can be understood as an historical construct of that time period, but reproducing it in something written today (about today) is problematic, no matter how much you love Dashiell Hammett or Jim Thompson. Woods consciously subverts these anachronisms, which works as a playful critique of the classics, but also populates his San Miguel with much more interesting characters than if it stayed faithful to the genre's source material.
Woods' portrayal of the parallel universe of San Miguel's expat colony is another strength of the novel. In contrast to romantic depictions of self-actualizing Westerners among "poor but soulful" natives (think Eat, Pray, Love), the expatriates in A Death in Mexico are presented as they are in real life: frequently insular, generally privileged and often disdainful of locals. Woods, an American who spends a lot of time in Mexico, clearly knows this kind of social environment and its "types" well: the drifters, the moochers, the sexual predators, the barflys, the wannabe big shots, the failures at home looking for a second chance, the retirees, the absent diplomats, their bored wives and husbands, etc. It's not a pretty picture, but isn't too grim or essentialist either--there are a few expatriates in the book who may be privileged but aren't insular or disdainful, and whom Diaz grows to view sympathetically.
This glimpse into Mexican perspectives on the gringo expatriates is, in many ways, more interesting than the expatriates themselves. In normal times, these range from bare toleration to a view of the expatriate as a sort of amusing/bemusing curiosity, but they quickly scales down to annoyance and resentment when something goes wrong and the senses of entitlement and superiority that many expatriates assume in their dealings with locals comes to the fore. You ocassionally sense these kinds of perspectives as backdrop to Western novels with "heroic expatriate" protagonists, and they are certainly recurrent in the writings of non-Westerners, but it's rare for Western novelists to confront these ugly truths as clearly, as deftly and as reflexively as Woods does. Though I don't have any special knowledge of Mexico or its expatriate colonies, this treatment felt like an accurate representation of local/expat interactions in places I do know well. (There's also a clear, though not heavy-handed, parallel to how the urban, educated Mexicanos barely notice the brightly-clothed, rural and uneducated Indios who come to San Miguel to sell crafts and agricultural goods. Again, I can't vouch for the realism of this in the specific context of small-city Mexico, but I recognize it from elsewhere.)
So yeah...A Death in Mexico is a clever and thought-provoking novel. But is it a good crime novel? Some readers might be turned off by its languid pace, though this didn't bother me--I devoured the book in three days, not missing the frenetic action that ones finds in a typical mass market thriller. But I did take issue with the ending, which just sort of happened. I'm not asking for an unrealistic tying up of loose ends, but the resolution to the mystery felt tacked on and unrelated to the bulk of the investigation. I'm sure that happens in real life, but I would have liked a little more lead-in.
All in all, though, A Death in Mexico is a well constructed, compelling, character-based mystery that should appeal to readers who want their neo-noir smart and current. Recommended.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10.
Bonuses: +1 for bringing noir gender relations into the 21st century; +1 for not depicting Mexico as either a hotbed of unending corruption and drug murder or as a colorful backdrop to the adventures of expatriate heroes.
Penalties: -1 for the unsatisfying ending.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."
Read about our non-inflated scoring system here.