Sleuthing the city with Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Paco Ignacio Taibo II isnot only Latin America’sforemost detective writer;over the years he has alsobeen a political activist,journalist, and university professor.His detective novels read like an odeto his beloved Mexico City, but hewas actually born in Gijon, Spainin 1949, and emigrated here as ayoung boy.

Image:Illustration by David Peón.

Taibo's Mexico City, both "a monster and a lover", is the stomping ground for detective Hector Belascoarán Shayne in novels that are "tinged with the grotesque."

Paco Ignacio looks exactly as youmight expect a detective writer tolook. Sitting at a desk piled with books, overflowing ashtrays and half-finished bottles of Coke, he runs a hand through his mop of wild, thick hair, rubs his eyes, lights another cigarette and begins to reminisce.

“My first perception was that itwas the end of the world,” he muses.“A journey of 28 days in a boat is likethe end of the world for a boy of 8. Itwas like going to colonize Mars,” hesays of the 1958 voyage that took himand his family from Bilbao to Veracruz via New York and Havana.

“The journey was full of surprises… everything was different, people even talked differently,” he recalls.  “On the other hand, my sentimental education had prepared me for it, as I was forever reading adventure books.” A passionate reader, he devoured books from an early age, nurturing his childhood dreams of becoming a writer. “I knew I wanted to be a writer from age 5… along with being a trapeze artist and a fireman!", he chuckles, twisting the ends of his bushy grey-streaked moustache.

Taibo’s fondness for revolutionaryheroes was piqued during this earlyepic journey. He remembers goingwith his father to listen to the ship’sradio for reports from the revolutionin Cuba. “The captain remarked thatit was strange that the battle wastaking place in Cuba but the man onthe radio seemed to have an Argentine accent,” he recounts. Perhapsthis was the moment when the seedsfor his biography of Che Guevarawere sown.

Paco Ignacio’s father, writer andjournalist Paco Ignacio Taibo I,and other members of his familysupported the Republicans duringthe war in Spain. They were part of a generation of intellectuals who fled Franco’s Spainand would greatly enrich the cultural life of Mexico. Drawing ontheir experiences, Paco Ignacio’slatest novel, De Paso, is about an exiled Spanish anarchist who finds himself in Mexico in the early 20thcentury.

“I work at night and sleep in themornings, and as you can see thephone rings constantly... maybethis is why I work at night,” hespeculates. “Also with so many ofmy books being published in somany countries I am obliged totravel a lot.” Unlike many writers,he doesn’t adhere to a routine. “Iwrite when I want and as muchas I want when I can. I write hereat my desk and in hotels and intrains and planes. Basically everywhere I can.” 

Although he has produced books in several genres, he is best known for his series of novels featuring the hard-bitten detective Hector Belascoarán Shayne (so named because of the character’s Irish mother). Widely regarded as the inventor of the neo-detective genre in Latin America, his books have been published in 29 countries.  Among many awards, he is the only three-time winner of the International Dashiel Hammett prize, given by the International Association of Crime Writers.

It's hard to believe that this straight-talking man would ever have trouble expressing himself on any topic, but ones of his reasons for choosing the detective genre was to write social novels without having to pen a straightforward social commentary.  "Detective novels depict reality tinged with the grotesque, with magic and with a strong social burden, which is inevitable because in Latin America the essence of crime is the state."

His detective wanders the back streets of Mexico City much as Paco Ignacio often does, and in these books the city -- loved, hated, feared and worshipped -- is as much a protagoniste as any of the character.  "Mexico City was a great discovery for me...I have a dual perception of the city as a monster and a love," he says.  "I invent a lot in my novels, but I never invent the city; the city is real."

"I love the crowds, the hurly-burly and the chaos of the center of the city, the area around the Zócalo.  It puts me in a good mood when I get off the metro there."

As the child of immigrants, does he regard himself as Mexican or Spanish?  A "nice mixture" of the two, he decides: "Of course I am very, very Mexican, but when I am back in Spain for three months each year for [the crime fiction festival he organizes in Gijon], I also feel at home.

Many of Paco Ignacio Taibo II's novels have been published in English and can be found online at www.powells.com and www.amazon.com.