The Social Detective and the Ever-wakeful Dead:

Detecting Justice in Contemporary Mexico with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne


Catherine M. Bryan

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh



Viviendo engañas, muriendo enseñas.


                                                                        Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz


This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward....            


Walter Benjamin


The central dilemma of Walter Benjamin’s little “angel of history” would seem to be his desire to face the past and repair the violence and destruction that occurred there, while at the same time he is propelled into the future, even as he continues to watch what’s going on behind him, the pain and destruction grow and grow. Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s celebrated detective, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, often seems to find himself in a similar position. Inhabiting one of the largest and most populated urban spaces in the world, Mexico City, Héctor, in his role as detective, invariably must assume a dual point of articulation as he stands between and attempts to link unresolved injustices of the past with those of the present. His task is a historic one that requires resources that go beyond alliances with official channels of power - the police, judicial system, the state – all resources that have proved to be unreliable, to say the least. Instead, he calls upon and creates informal communities of support and solidarity located in the margins of Mexican society, counter-spaces, which, at the same time, are located within the urban center.  These disparate yet connected characters work together and separately searching for the pieces necessary to elaborate a sort of coherent narrative to explain crimes and injustices that seem to elude explanation. As Hector develops his murder investigations, these counter-knowledges often contest, contradict, and illuminate “official stories” and offer an antidote to the collective amnesia imposed on the Mexican population by the official corporate media and the smoke screens constructed by the ever-expanding forces of a postmodern reality of late capitalism/neo-liberal globalization within an also highly transcultural context, in which the possibility of comprehending and tracing “power” becomes more and more elusive. Héctor is a detective of and for his time-space.(1)

Thus, like the little angel, while Hector seeks to discern a socio-logical and historic chain of events that lead from one point to another, what frequently is revealed are the chronic and catastrophic results of the consistent betrayal of the promises of the Mexican Revolution; unchecked corruption on all levels of authority; state-sponsored repression and violence often in association with the government-military repression and massacre of members of the student-worker movement in 1968 and then into the 1970s; and the painful effects of the tremendous influx of migrants abandoning the impoverished countryside for a city that receives them, not with golden streets, but few opportunities for decent employment and, a lack of infrastructure capable of satisfying the basic needs of the millions of inhabitants in the growing metropolis. The crime, kidnappings, and drug trafficking arising within socio-economic systems based on privilege, racial bias, neo-colonial relations, and the havoc produced by a savage capitalism that runs rampant in Mexican society, all offer little hope for a better future for the vast majority of citizens of Mexico. The wreckage and debris that Héctor faces, past and present, can thus be traced to:  historic secrets, lies, greed, betrayal, exploitation, torture, and murder.

In this essay, I study the development of the detective, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, as a detective of and for his time-space, who performs a socialized detective role within his community and is capable of confronting crimes that move from the individual to a collective, historic dimension.    In concrete ways, he seeks to humanize the great “monster”, Mexico City, to give names and faces to the “we” and “they” – victims and criminals – and to create at least partial narratives to help explain the process leading to the suffering of his clients and finally, often, provide alternative modes of justice. As Risa Dickens has suggested, “The sleuth is an allegory, a symbol to be read, but he is also the reader of symbols.” One of the issues I attempt to discern here is the question of Héctor and his characteristics as detective: who is he? where did he come from? why does he fit this particular historical juncture? does he have an allegorical function?  Or, at this historical moment, could we see it as a partial allegorical function as the possibility of totality seems to be out of our narrative grasp? As Fredric Jameson has stated, “The social detective, therefore…will require a supplement of motivation in order to win narrative plausibility: ‘motivation of device’ as the formalists pleasantly call it, in which what has to be done artistically is rationalized after the fact for aesthetic purposes.” (1995, 37) 

What are the particular and outstanding characteristics of Héctor’s being as detective and what motivates those characteristics on the level of the content of the novel, but also, and beyond the limits of formalist scope, what is the outside, social and historical, ideological and urgent motivation for those characteristics? How does he represent and embody those motives?

The category of the “social detective” developed by Jameson in his Geopolitical Aesthetic, offers a useful way to begin to conceptualize this new kind of detective positioned to confront current socio-economic and political conditions in large urban centers as represented in Héctor:

the social detective….will either be an intellectual in the formal sense from the outset, or will gradually find himself/herself occupying the intellectual’s structural position by virtue of the     premium placed on knowledge or the cognitive by the form itself (perhaps the last contemporary narrative type in which the lone intellectual can still win heroic dimensions). In any case, it will be the more general positioning of the intellectual in the social structure which endows the individual protagonist with collective resonance, which transforms (them)….into a vehicle for judgments on society and revelation of its hidden nature, just as it refocuses the various individual or empirical events and actors into a representative pattern symptomatic of the social order as a whole. (39)


In the first novel of the series, Días de combate, (1976) Héctor has just broken with his comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. The lifestyle had become uncomfortable to him. He has quit his job as an industrial engineer at General Electric, left his wife and his home to move to a small apartment in the center of the city and has begun a new life as a private detective, almost obsessively in search of a serial strangler whose victims are women and who leaves notes with the corpses signed, oddly, “Cerevro”. At this point in the series, Héctor is not able to fully articulate his reasons for the abrupt change in his life path.  Instead, his brother Carlos, with a highly developed political consciousness, attempts to do it for him, first explaining why:

- Para ponerte a mano con tantos años de estarte haciendo pendejo. De rutinas y fraudes.  De falta de tierra debajo de los pies, y sobra de refrigerador y coche nuevo en los sueños…(41)


- Yo siempre pensé que tú eras la vertiente conservadora de la herencia. Que tú habías cumplido la necesidad de stablishment de ganarse a uno de cada tres pequeños burgueses, matar al otro y dejar al otro aislado hasta que se rinda por hambre. Eso los pensé siempre, y repartí los papeles: Tú eras el cuadro…Y ahora me vienes y me jodes el esquema.  Parece que las reglas se hunden. Y te lo agradezco. No tienes idea, hermano, cuánto te lo agradezco.(43)


Then, warning him that his obsession with the strangler, his need to stop the strangler at all costs, is actually a pretext to something much greater:

- Ahora….no esperes que concilie. Si te quieres matar, que quede claro. Porque lo que está pensando que te estás columpiando en el borde del sistema; como patinar descalzo sobre una Gillette. Hasta da escalofrío. No te creas demasiado lo del estrangular; lo de la cacería. Estás rompiendo con todo lo que había atrás. Estás jugando en el borde del sistema, y no pienses que es otra cosa. Siento que esperes que el otro juegue también en el borde. Y que de una manera un tanto mágica has creado un asesino idealizado como tú. Fuera de las reglas del juego. Ten cuidado no te vayas a encontrar a alguno de los artífices del juego. Cuídate el Comandante de la Judicial, en sus horas libres, las horas que le sobran de golpear estudiantes o torturar campesinos, no se dedique a estrangular mujeres. Cuídate el Presidente de la República, del dueño de la fábrica de enfrente. Quizás ellos estén también jugando en el borde de su sistema, del que han creado…Cuídate de los milagros, de los militares, del cielo, de los apóstoles. Y si lo encuentras, y si él está loco y mata por necesidades más allá de ti, de mí, de nosotros, mátalo. No lo entregues a la policía que ellos están en otro juego…(43-44)


Thus, the break with his social class and bourgeois life style, is a move that comes from within Héctor himself, but, he is not fully conscious of all of the reasons for the break, it is almost as if he had no choice. Both the reasons for and the reality that he will confront in his work toward justice are articulated to him by his politicized brother. It will be up to Héctor to incorporate that understanding and make it his own. The case of the serial strangler in Días de combate is the most conventional case that Héctor takes in the series, remaining on a relatively individual plane.  It is his way to transition into his new life and life purpose. 

By book two, Cosa fácil (1977), Héctor has put the past behind him and integrated himself more profoundly into his new role, taking on three cases with far greater historical and political dimensions. In Cosa fácil, he is able to begin to articulate to himself why he has chosen this dangerous and important path.

Pero, ¿cuál era el reto?, ¿en dónde estaba el endemoniado truco, el valor de su actitud?...Lo que fastidiaba a Belascoarán era no el ritmo violento de aquellos días, ni siquiera la inercia que se le imponía obligándole a tomar decisiones, o más bien a que las tomaran por él los acontecimientos. Lo que le jodía era no descubrir por qué había aceptado un reto así. Qué parte de su oscura cabeza buscaba gloria en aquella carrera agotadora por las tres historias que corrían paralelas. La pregunta en el fondo era sencilla: ¿por qué lo estaba haciendo? Y por ahora sólo tenía una respuesta que explicaba por separado tres diferentes compromisos contraídos. A saber: a) que le gustaba la forma de ser de la adolescente del brazo enyesado, que le gustaba el papel de protector silencioso que le adjudicaban los acontecimientos; b) que pensaba que metiendo las manos en el lodo del asesinato de los ingenieros podía encontrar el pago a la deuda contraída en sus años de capataz con diploma en la general. Deuda, no con la profesión y el oficio, sino con su sumisión al ambiente, con su desprecio por los trabajadores, con sus viajes por los barrios obreros como quien cruza zonas de desastre. Regresaba el ambiente en que se había formado y deformado y necesitaba mostrarse a sí mismo que era otro. Jugaba también en ese reto el problema de desembarazar al sindicato independiente del muerto que querían colgar a sus espaldas; c) quería ver los ojos de Emiliano Zapata de frente, quería ver si el país que el hombre había soñado era posible. Si el viejo le podía comunicar algo del ardor, de la fe que había animado su cruzada. Aunque nunca terminaba de creer la posibilidad de que estuviera vivo, el escarbar en el pasado en su busca lo acercaba a la vida. (223-224) 


To protect the vulnerable and criminally pursued; to repay his debt to the union workers he had treated with disdain and disrespect in his “previous life”; and to meet the great hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, and experience some of the passion and faith he brought to the revolutionary project of creating a more just Mexico, are all elements of Héctor’s commitment to his new work as social detective in this novel.  He is beginning to see his historical role, is moving from the individual level to the collective and is bringing the pieces together to build a social-political consciousness. 

It is also in Cosa fácil that, during a blast of machine-gun fire, Héctor’s eye is shot out and his right femur is shattered. Thus he is abruptly and intensely initiated into the world of the wounded. These first serious wounds are inflicted by the henchmen of high public officials who pursue Héctor because he is protecting a young girl whom they believe has compromising photos of them with her mother, an ex-porn star. Throughout the novel the henchmen threaten Héctor, knife him, beat him up, and take shots at him. Finally, one evening as he is leaving his office, they hit their target. From then on, Héctor faces crime with just one eye and a noticeable limp. 

As the series continues, Héctor will be wounded many more times. His body becomes a veritable map of the crimes he has fought, he is physically marked by the violence of the city. And, it is by way of Héctor’s scars that we can see another aspect of his integration into his role as social detective, his integration into the community of victims and fellow-collaborators toward justice.  As Héctor states throughout the series, and Taibo confirms, (and, as can be noted in the quote from Cosa fácil), the only way he can solve cases of the type he must face is to insert himself directly into the story, to become a part of the narrative so that the criminals begin to pursue the detective and thus reveal themselves to him. (Hernández Martín)  This strategy works in numerous cases. It also results in numerous injuries. But, most importantly, it reduces the distance between the victims and the detective. The victim-detective alliance becomes more equal, more democratic. Rather than a center of knowledge and power removed from the reality of the crime, Héctor allows himself to become a part of it, his knowledge and deductions are informed by empathy and arise from a more organic perspective based on experience, a socially-informed perspective.

Héctor’s capacity to be wounded and the wounds he has suffered can be seen to form part of a larger social narrative related to vulnerability, heroism, and community. As Marina Berzins McCoy suggests in her book, Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy,

…awareness of one’s own and others’ capacity to be wounded and the proper response to it, are a central part of virtue for successful communities.  Not only individuals, but also political communities must come to terms with and respond appropriately to the vulnerability that exists within.  Indeed, vulnerability strengthens interpersonal bonds within a community, and is closely intertwined with a number of different facets of ethical life. (ix) 


And, in her analysis of Homer’s Iliad, she states, “…human wounds increase the bonds of relationships within the community.”(x) (2) Héctor’s wounds can serve to create points of identification and integration with victims and the vulnerable social groups with whom he works.  In his role as wounded hero --limping, one-eyed, scarred-- once again, the distance between the victims and the intellectual/detective can be bridged. They are vulnerable, so is he. If he is positioned at the border between his past life of middle-class comfort and his new life in the heart of the mean streets of Mexico City, Hector’s role and function can be seen also to be on the border between “serving” a community and being part of that community. His wounds and capacity to be wounded can serve as a link to victims, the community, to history as the violence of the city is inscribed in his body. 

The Preface of the English translation of the seventh book in the series, Sueños de frontera (1990) includes a drawing of Héctor which includes all of his major and minor injuries and their origins. The image provides an interesting map, plotting the results of Hector’s walk through the minefield of Mexican criminality. From head to foot, we can see his engagement in and even sacrifice to his task. His status as wounded hero makes evident his human vulnerability, but also his bravery, and social commitment to the ethical project that compels him to walk through and face that minefield that can be contemporary Mexico City. 

As the series advances, by book four, No habrá final feliz (1981) the little angel of history becomes the angel of death, or perhaps, as in the title of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film set in Mexico City in the 1960s, “The Exterminating Angel”. As the novel ends, Héctor is gunned down by the Halcones (a government-backed and CIA-trained paramilitary group responsible for the massacre of students at a protest in 1971, but treated with impunity), and the final sentences of the novel state: 

Al caer en el charco, estaba casi muerto. La mano se hundió en el agua sucia y trató de asir algo, de detener algo, de impedir que algo se fuera. Luego, quedó inmóvil. Un hombre se acercó y pateó su cara dos veces. Se subieron a los coches y se fueron.

Sobre el cadáver de Héctor Belascoarán, siguió lloviendo. (50)


Héctor is described as a “cadaver”, a dead body, a corpse. (3) The corruption and historic violence of the city, as represented specifically in the Halcones, have managed to murder the detective. Yet, with the beginning of the fifth novel Regreso a la misma ciudad y bajo la lluvia, (1989) Héctor is once again alive, resurrected, and ready to continue on for the next six novels.  Regreso a la misma ciudad opens with Héctor asking his (quite ethereal and prone to disappearing for extended periods of time) girlfriend, “¿Cuántas veces te has muerto?” 

How do we understand Héctor’s death and resurrection from one novel to the next? Is it a dreamlike, surreal experience or a moment of Latin American magical realism? As one enters the world of Mexico City, as surreal as it may seem, as realistically magical as it may seem, Héctor’s resurrection seems as verosimil as the layer upon layer of deceit, violence, and corruption that he and his cohorts uncover or as the amazing ways that regular citizens devise to survive in the city.  The death and resurrection of Héctor, in this context, seem to be a coherent-incoherency. As Taibo has explained,

Resurrection is a Mexican disease. ..I can't keep a character like Belascoarán alive in this kind of a reality, because reality kills him. Reality kills him, and I bring him back to life, and the readers accept this absurd, crazy game. (cited in Hernández Martín)


What is the function of the cultural device of resurrection in a contemporary detective novel? Why should we believe it or accept it as Taibo suggests? What is the function of Héctor’s death?  On a literary (formalist and then Brechtian) level, we can see the innovative device as part of the process of estrangement, the incorporation of something out of the ordinary that jolts us into recognizing the folly of what we expect. Namely, that the bullets always miss the detective or that the detective is in some way impervious to bullets. The main character, the (wounded) hero, cannot be removed from the series, he simply will not be killed.  But Héctor is murdered, he suffers the absolute victimization, death. 

Certainly there is nothing magical about his death. But, his very matter-of-fact resurrection does seem to suggest some sort of magical quality, what Taibo proposes as “…white magic perhaps…” Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s is well known for the production of what has been called “magical realism” (4), a literary response to the historical reality of “combined and uneven development” which marked the Latin American socio-economies, and, the coexistence of different modes of time, space, and mentality within a neo-colonial context.   A quote from the second novel in the series, Cosa fácil, illustrates what I have described (in the scene, Héctor is drinking virgin cuba libres as he waits for a client in a bar):


El Farol del Fin del Mundo, cantina de postín, estaba situada en el viejo casco de la ciudad feudal de Azcapotzalco, en lo que alguna vez había sido “las afueras”, y hoy era un centro fabril más, con pintorescos pedazos de hacienda, panteones, iglesias de pueblo y una monstruosa refinería, orgullo de la tecnología de los cincuenta. (145)


In just a few phrases, the historical roots saturated in conflict and struggle of the bar and its neighborhood are brought to the forefront: the feudal city (a colonial encomienda) with an Aztec name, now part of the project of modern industrialization of Mexico City, sharing space with the colonial dead and their remnants --haciendas, gravestones, church-- and finally, looming overhead, petroleum, an important resource that was privatized, nationalized and privatized again as presidents came and went over the years. 

One of the most well-known examples of this coexistence of time, space, mentality, and modes of production in Mexico City is the Plaza de las Tres Culturas also referred to as the Plaza de Tlatelolco.  In this central plaza, one can observe ultra-modern buildings of the cosmopolitian Mexican metropolis, along side buildings of the colonial period of New Spain --cathedral, government palace-- all built on top of Aztec ruins of the great city of Tenochtitlán. It is an impressive, “magical” reality, but it is also the site of the 1968 massacre of students in silent protest by government-backed military and secret military forces during the presidency of Díaz-Ordáz. The massacre of students by the Halcones would come three years later, in June during the celebration of Corpus Cristi in Mexico City during the presidency of Echeverría. The Halcones were formed in response to the student movement of 1968, to ensure that it would not gain strength again. In the 1960s and 1970s, Héctor was on the fringe of the student movement. He was focused on gaining his industrial engineering degree. He did have friends though, who participated in the movement, some of whom appear later in the series. With his death at the hands of the remaining Halcones, perhaps we can read a homage to or commemoration of the students who were killed. And, like the angel of history, the desire to “awaken the dead” is symbolically realized. Héctor comes back to life. Héctor will be able to continue the fight against the impunity with which the perpetrators have historically been treated. As Taibo has noted in his memoir “’68”:

Today the Movement of ’68 is one more Mexican ghost among many unassimilated and ever-wakeful ghosts that haunt our land. It could be that because of its youth this particular ghost is alive and well and comes automatically to the aid of our generation whenever called upon.  (10)


This statement is also a reminder, that many from the movement may have been murdered, but the ideas, the spirit, the historical project, the “ghost” has not been disappeared.

The cohabitation of the Mexican people with their historical dead forms part of a cultural history dating back to the pre-Columbian period and then the conquest. As Octavio Paz states, 

Para los antiguos mexicanos la oposición entre muerte y vida no era tan absoluta como para nosotros….Vida, muerte y resurrección eran estadios de un proceso cósmico, que se repetía insaciable. (42) (5)

As Héctor moves between life and death and back again (this seems to occur more than once as the series goes on), he also cycles through history, as his cases reach back and forth in time. If we follow John Berger’s lead when he says: 
“Como las palabras, las apariencias pueden leerse también y, de entre las apariencias, el rostro humano constituye uno de los textos más largos.”(La Jornada 2007) we can attempt to read the story that is represented on Héctor’s face.  Somewhat like an Aztec life-death mask, Héctor’s face is divided in two, representing a duality of life and death. One side with a living eye, the other side without, sometimes covered with a patch, sometimes without, initially called a “dead eye” by his doctor. Masks of this type --with the two-sided face -- were found in Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico and Soyaltepec. According to James Maffie, “the masks are intentionally ambiguous…The faces are neither-alive-nor-dead yet at the same time both-alive-and-dead.” The masks suggest that life and death are two parts of a whole, (Wrigley 6) and can ambiguously coexist. Such a mask, mediating between life and death, therefore, seems particularly appropriate for Héctor’s situation beginning in Regreso a la misma ciudad, his resurrection.

Héctor makes references to his one-eyed status, often as dark, self-effacing humor, rarely in complaint. But this device, of the one-eyed private eye, carries connotations beyond the wounded hero and beyond the Aztec life-death mask. The duality of Héctor’s face suggests a seeing side and an intuiting side, one observing and one processing, one eye looking out and the other phantom eye focusing within. It is also a duality that transforms the detective gaze, the detective’s way of seeing, physically, cognitively and perhaps, ideologically. Risa Dickens studies the detective’s gaze as a cultural construct, with “both a witnessing and ordering power.”  The detective’s gaze, or way of seeing, is marked by the space and time in which it arises, it is socio-culturally located. In the case of our one-eyed detective, who views the world through his life-death mask, his vision takes on another dimension. Héctor’s gaze is marked by violence, transformed by violence, and therefore carries the memory of violence. His vision is tinted by the violence of the city, and of course, in particular, the machine gun blast that caused him to lose his eye. As Donna Haraway has stressed, 

Vision is always a question of the power to see…The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity – honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, male supremacy – to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. (188)

But the vision or gaze she describes is that of power, of the unmarked category, the distanced knowledge located at a position of authority that is absent. Héctor’s gaze, on the other hand, is embodied, marked, and partial. He doesn’t pretend total knowledge, but instead partial perspective, situated knowledge, located within the counter-spaces of the victims, the citizens, the alliances of solidarity who seek to reveal and contest the logic of disembodied, corrupted power. Thus, the device of the one-eyed detective seems to arise from the motivation made clear in book two, Cosa fácil, the moment in which Héctor is able to articulate his personal and social role and project, and his way of seeing is altered to contribute to that role/project. 

 Héctor isn’t the only character in the series who seems to mediate between life and death, who proclaims partial perspective, who works toward building alternative communities of resistance in search of justice. The tenth (and last to date) book in the series, Muertos incómodos (2005), is the product of a collaborative effort between Taibo in Mexico City and Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas. It is “a novel by four hands” in which all odd chapters were written by Subcomandante Marcos and all even chapters were written by Taibo. The collaboration between the two authors is extended into the narrative world of the novel in that Héctor joins forces with an “Investigation Commission” from La Realidad, Chiapas, named Elías Contreras. Elías has been sent to Mexico City by Subcomandante Marcos to find Héctor and inquire into the possibility of their working together to track “Morales”, a crime figure who has committed injustices in Chiapas and in Mexico City. 

In the opening chapter of the novel, narrated in first person, Elías informs readers that Elías is not his “real” name, but his nom de guerre and that the last name “Contreras” was given to him by Subcomandante Marcos because Elías tends to behave in a contrary way. He also informs readers that he is dead.  “But let me tell you a little about who I was. Yeah, was, cause I’m deceased now….Hell, I’d be sixty-one now, but I ain’t, cause I’m dead, which means I’m deceased.” (17-18) 

While Elías is very direct with the reader regarding his physical state, within the narrative he functions as living character. There is no explanation for his death or for why he is able to function among the living characters as if he were one of them. Thus, in Muertos incómodos we have two detectives (one private detective and one Investigation Commission), coming from two different worlds within Mexico – the city and the jungle - who are dead yet alive, and working together to find “Morales”.(6) While Héctor was murdered by the Halcones, as discussed above, and his death and resurrection may have a commemorative effect associated with the massacres at Tlatelolco in 1968 and of Corpus Cristi in 1971, it is possible that Elías’ status as dead yet functionally alive is associated with parallel issues of state-sponsored violence. In the paragraph in which he explains that he is dead, he also discusses his military experiences as a Zapatista:

I was in the militia when we went up in arms back in 1994 and I fought with the troops of the First Zapatista Infantry Regiment, under the command of Sup Pedro, when we took Las Margaritas…. I first met Sup Marcos back in 1992, when we voted to go to war. Then, later I ran into him in 1994 and we were together when the federal troops chased us out in February of 1995. I was with him and Major Moses when they came at us with war tanks and helicopters and special forces and all, and yeah, it was tough, but as you can see, they didn’t get us.  (18)

 As Víctor Pablo Santana Peraza and Glen Close have suggested, perhaps, through the figure of Elías, Subcomandante Marcos sought to honor fallen Zapatistas who fought during the war or fell under paramilitary attack.(7) The deduction seems plausible, especially in association with Héctor’s resurrection-situation and, with the recent change in the real life status of the now ex-Subcomandante Marcos, who has disappeared, “died” and in his place has arisen from the dead, Subcomandante Galeano, a Zapatista teacher who was murdered by government forces while defending a Zapatista school, La Escuelita in La Realidad, Chiapas in May 2014.(8) Subcomandante Marcos’ farewell speech closed thus:

…Given the above, at 2:08am on May 25, 2014, from the southeast combat front of the EZLN, I here declare that he who is known as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, self-proclaimed “subcomandante of unrustable steel,” ceases to exist…. [He lights his pipe and exits stage left. Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés announces that “another compañero is going to say a few words.”] (a voice is heard offstage) Good early morning compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Anyone else here named Galeano?  [the crowd cries, “We are all Galeano!”] Ah, that’s why they told me that when I was reborn, it would be as a collective. And so it should be. (Between Light and Shadow)

Death-resurrection is a device then, that could be seen to respond to the historical moment --time-space-- and to represent solidarity with the victims of injustice, a way to honor them and to allow them to continue to fight for justice, vindication --in the city and in the jungle.  The device also produces estrangement, certainly, and has caused much speculation on the part of readers, seeking an explanation --beyond “magic”-- for Héctor’s resuscitation and Elías’ dead yet alive status. The device causes discomfort, and causes readers to think on both a literary and social plane. These are important roles of the social intellectual/detective – to cause discomfort that leads to critical thought.(9)

In the same novel, Muertos incómodos, Héctor is drawn into an investigation by way of a voice from the past, the voice of a man who was imprisoned after the massacre in 1968 and then murdered in 1971 in the Tlatelolco gardens. This voice, this man, leaves telephone messages on the answering machine of an old acquaintance, who then seeks Héctor’s help in deciphering the recordings.  Eventually the “ghost” begins to call Héctor as well. The messages include historical counter-narratives, clues to finding the elusive “Morales”. At the same time, clues to finding “Morales” also arrive in Chiapas by special messenger from Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, the famous Spanish author of detective fiction, who, outside of the world of fiction, died in 2003, but within the novel he is alive and sending messages to Subcomandante Marcos regarding this “Morales” criminal figure.(10) Later it is revealed that the voice of the “ghost”, Jesús María Alvarado, is being portrayed by his son, Ángel Alvarado Alvarado in order to investigate and vindicate his father’s death. And thus, we are called back to the angel, the little angel of history, here named “Angel”, facing the past to create justice in the present with Héctor’s help and that of a number of ordinary characters who hold the individual pieces to make the whole, to find “Morales” and put an end to his criminal acts forever. In creating a mode by which Jesús María-Ángel can speak, Taibo gives a voice to victims, even beyond the grave, as “living” agents embody their truth and make it known to allies in the community who work together to bring the immoral “Morales” to justice.(11)

At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that Héctor, in his role as social detective, sought to investigate and reveal the human and inhuman characteristics of urban social relations in the age of neo-liberal globalization, relationships that have become alienated, commodified, fetishized, marked by corruption, violence, fear, and finally, hidden within that great “monster” that is Mexico City. One may ask, how can a “monster” be humanized, how can human justice be sought within a “monster”? It would seem to be beyond its nature. But, the “monster-city”, Mexico City for example, is a human construction, perhaps a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, but it is not a force of nature, and therefore, it is capable of change brought about by the struggles of human beings. In this age and context, what Jameson has called the “era of multinational capitalism”, when “totalization” has become impossible, and has been replaced by paranoia and conspiracy, the path that Héctor chooses is to recognize the paranoia (often based on a true situation of persecution) and seek ways to reveal at least urgent elements of “the conspiracy” – historically and locally. And, when official forces of public protection --the state, judicial system, police-- fail to respond to the needs of the citizens, it becomes clear that alternative ways of seeking justice must be elaborated. By way of literary devices motivated by the urgent social and historical situation of general crisis for the majority of the inhabitants of Mexico City, social detective, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, begins the path to his social, physical, and ideological transformation, setting out to create counter-spaces of citizen solidarity that work together (and separately) to develop partial, counter-knowledges that aid in the elaboration of unofficial modes of realizing justice.  Victims and the victimizers are named and historicized. The monster begins to have a history or histories and names, and counter-spaces of human justice within the beast are formed.  



(1). In his introduction to a collection of short stories he edited, Mexico City Noir, Taibo describes Mexico City:   

Twenty-one million residents in the metropolitan area. An infinite city, one of the biggest in the world, a fascinating blanket of lights for those arriving on planes; a huge Christmas tree on its side – red, green, yellow, white; mercury, tungsten, sodium, neon. A city gone crazy with pollution, rain, traffic; an economic crisis that’s been going on for twenty-five years.

A city famously notable for the strangest reasons:  for being the urban counterpoint to the Chiapas jungle; for having the most diverse collection of jokes about death; for the setting the record for most political protests in one year; for having two invisible volcanoes and the most corrupt police force on the planet. (11)


(2). Berzins McCoy’s study of the Iliad naturally includes analysis of the hero Hektor, who, in spite of the pleas of his wife, Andromache, insists that he must go forth and fight in the war, no matter what the risk, so that his community is not enslaved by its enemies. Hektor’s valiant death has meaning that goes beyond himself as individual, in that bravery and virtue shown in the loss/his death has a much broader meaning in connection with his relationships and his community.


(3). It is interesting to note that the English translation of the novel does not use the word “cadaver” or “corpse” or “dead body”, but instead, “The rain continued to fall on the shattered body of Héctor Belascoarán Shayne.”(171) This seems to be much more ambiguous or euphemistic, and could perhaps be considered a cultural interpretation, U.S. cultural interpretation of the event woven into the translation. Or perhaps in anticipation or as foreshadowing (from a translator who has already read the next novel)-- he isn’t necessarily dead because…” to be continued…”


(4). Víctor Pablo Santana Peraza points out a narrative critique of the notion of the perceived “magic” of the Mexican reality as represented in the novel Desvanecidos difuntos: 

Contrario a la visión folclórico y condescendiente que enaltece el desbarajuste latinoamericano, la magia implícita en el desorden hace que uno de los personajes, explicando las peripecias que sufre en las procuradurías ante un caso injusto, cuestione esa visión: “Y luego viene un mamón antropólogo francés y dice: ‘¡C’est maravilleux, le magique mexicaine!’¡Mis ovarios! ¿Dónde está lo maravilloso en que el puto de Kafka sea el papacito del poder judicial? (45) 

As the reader will see, the notion of “magical realismthat I am describing here, proposes a quite material and historical approach to the understanding of Latin American reality.


(5). Cultural representations of México’s way of experiencing “death” are rich and varied, from celebrations of “Día de los muertos”, to the popular images created by Guadalupe Posadas, paintings by Frida Kahlo, for example “Girl with Death Mask” or “The Dream”, Diego Rivera’s famous painting “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” in which figures from across Mexican history are portrayed with La Catrina –death-- smiling in the center, popular songs like “Prisoner Number 9” for example, novels like Pedro Páramo, and the list goes on. The device of “death” and the cohabitation of the living and the dead is a recurrence in Mexican culture from the pre-Columbian times to the present.


(6). The role and function of the social detective that I am working with here in the case of Héctor, is in response to his social and historical context --the urban metropolis, Mexico City-- , his social background and reality, whereas, in the case of Elías, coming from and working in a quite different social, cultural and geographical environment, his roles and functions as an Investigation Commission are similar yet different. To begin with, the individual role of the urban independent private detective does not form part of Elías’ reality, he, as investigator, is already more than “Elías”, he is always a collective, a “commission” representing his social group. 

As the novel continues, it will be revealed that there are actually two “Morales”, one who committed numerous injustices in Chiapas and another in Mexico City, thus each “detective” returns to his area of expertise --Elías back to Chiapas in search of “his Morales” and Héctor remains in the city in search of “his Morales.” 


(7). In an article that is quite critical of, what Close calls, “the monologic polyphony of Subcomandante Marcos’” discourse in the novel, he suggests that Elías’ status as a dead character who functions as a living character represents a “cheap” attempt to liken his chapters of the novel to the Mexican classic, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Santana Peraza has highlighted elements of the representation of Elías that show that Close’s suggestion is highly unlikely.

Encontrar el parecido es difícil si tomamos en cuenta el tono festivo y de gran flujo verbal de Elías, frente a la parquedad y precisión de los personajes de El llano en llamas o Pedro Páramo.(58)


(8). On May 2, 2014, in the Zapatista territory of La Realidad, Chiapas, Mexico, the group CIOAC-H, planned and executed a paramilitary attack on unarmed Zapatista civilians. An autonomous Zapatista school and clinic was destroyed, 15 people were ambushed and injured and Jose Luis Solis Lopez (Galeano), teacher at the Zapatista Little School, was murdered. The mainstream media is falsely reporting this attack on the Zapatistas as an intra-community confrontation, but in fact this attack is the result of a long-term counterinsurgency strategy promoted by the Mexican government.”  (


(9). Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos’ May 25th announcement also caused great stir internationally as people outside of the Zapatista inner circle tried to understand what was going on, what his disappearance could mean for the future of the movement, why it occurred at that particular moment.  

On a side note, ex-Subcomandante Marcos was said to have worn an eye patch when he made his announcement…


(10). In an interesting inverse of this situation, in the third novel of the series, Algunas nubes,(1985) Héctor meets a friend of his brother’s, the author, Paco Ignacio, who by the end of the novel has been murdered.  Of course, as we know, the author Paco Ignacio, who functions outside of the narrative world of the novel lives on and continues writing the series.


(11). The recorded voice permitting victims to speak beyond death, also plays a similar central role in the sixth novel of the series Amorosos fantasmas (1989), in which a young woman records messages on cassette tape which she sends to a late night radio DJ who plays the messages on the air for her. Héctor is called in to investigate when the girl, Virginia, is found dead in what seems to be a suicide pact with a young man who loves her.  The problem is, the tape begins: 

Me llamo Virginia, tengo diecisiete años y no quiero morir…Qué ridículo, ¿verdad?, suena como mensaje de alcohólicos anónimos…pero de verdad que no me quiero morir, para nada, cuando se tienen diecisiete años todas las cosas están por hacerse, hasta las que ya se hicieron una vez.  No sé por qué pienso que las despedidas deben ser públicas, por eso grabo esta cinta que te haré llegar al programa de radio… (620)

thus indicating that the idea of the suicide pact does not seem viable. The DJ, Laura, is a friend of Héctor and also a friend of the mother of the victim.   Her radio station will pay him to investigate the case.  In this situation, Virginia’s tapes help to provide the clues that reveal a ring of pedophiles, once again, corrupt male members of the upper classes who kidnap and imprison young girls for their use and abuse.  Virginia’s voice beyond death (pre-recorded before she died), leads to justice for the girls and vindication of her death.





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