The best mystery novels (the ones that stay with us, anyway) always leave a little something unsettled in the story. Usually, it involves the answer to a character’s motivation. For example, it’s never really clear why the human automaton Anton Chigurh does what he does in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men even when there’s no reason for him to do it, when it is obvious that what he wants would come to him anyway without a violent act on his part.
If the evil is profound enough, if it appears to proceed from some warped moral center, as it surely does in Chigurh’s case, as it does in Iago’s case, we accept the inexplicability of it all as part of the mystery of the human experience and try to draw what meager lessons we can from it. If, on the other hand, the evil is merely tactless, tasteless, and apparently pointless, it does one of two things: either it offends us with its pointless gratuity, or it annoys us with the distraction it provides from getting at the heart of a genuine mystery.
Such is the case of the murder of prostitute Myra Cabral de Melo, a working stripper whose corpse is mutilated by the removal of one nipple in Elmer Mendoza’s Mexican crime thriller, The Acid Test. The problem for the “hero” in Mendoza’s tale, police detective Edgar “Lefty” Mendieta, is that he, too, has slept with de Melo once upon a time, and he can’t figure out why anyone would, after satisfactorily murdering such a beautiful woman, go on to desecrate her body.
Lefty’s a good, honest cop–one of the few–but, truth to tell, there’s a lot of things he can’t figure out: why fucking Mick Jagger is successful and he’s not, for one thing; why he’s still in the police business when the cartels control everything around him for another. We’re introduced to Lefty just as he’s about to take his own life, a scene more pathetic than it is moving, but as Mendieta slowly pulls himself together in the story, Mendoza begins to show us, through complex, interconnected characters and incrementally increasing violence, just how possible it might be for a good man to reach the point of taking his own life.
Down here in Texas, newspaper stories of the drug wars across the border from El Paso have been commonplace for years. I’ve been told by friends who have family in Mexico that the cartels try their best not to get civilians involved in their shootouts with the police. There’s no profit in it, and the cover that corrupt cops provide the cartels would disappear in a heartbeat if too many civilians were killed. Mendoza makes this same point late in the novel, as the cartels battle among themselves to appoint a new leader and maintain their supply of illegal weapons. Mendoza’s a lay expert on such matters, the inventor, in fact, of an entire subgenre of crime novels called “narcolit.” There are enough 9mm guns, AK-47s and shoulder-mounted bazookas lying around to start three small wars, and Mendoza starts them all, as his detective Mendieta discovers that Myra Cabral de Melo’s death is connected to the district attorney’s office, which is connected to a gun-running operation, which is connected to the American CIA, which is (of course) connected to the cartels.
“Can I just go ahead and kill myself now, and beat the Christmas rush?”
The reason, though, that Mendieta doesn’t do himself in is that life, curiously enough, is too full, too rich with possibilities to leave just yet. There is, for instance, the love life of his partner Zelda to consider. He must help her get her on-again/off-again relationship back to the “on” position. There is his wife Trudis, who flits into scenes and out again, a little bird of comedy who does not belong in such a sordid tale, and yet she does.
There is Mexico itself, bursting with food and drink–guava and chorizo and sauteed snapper– described by Mendoza and his translator as if Rick Bayless were ghostwriting the whole thing. You’ll learn how to cook and you’ll learn how to kill people in this slow-building, very crowded, but ultimately fast-paced thriller. Lefty eventually figures out most of what he needs to know, but not everything, not the thing that matters most. That’s the way of it when we cross any border into territory we were not born into or did not choose. The part you do not know is a part you have to accept. Or, you have to let your puzzlement and your annoyance about it drive you forward into the next day with your family and friends. Anything to keep your heart beating. Anything to keep the gun out of your own mouth.