The best setting for a hard-boiled thriller is a city stranded somewhere in transition between the first world and the third, where overtures must be made toward maintaining a veneer of law and order, while brutal Hobbesian power still reigns relatively unconstrained.
Consider the Mexico City of Rafael Bernal’s riveting cult classic “The Mongolian Conspiracy,’’ first published in Mexico in 1969 and now translated into English. The landscape is a Cold War proxy playground still experiencing the aftershocks of the Mexican revolution and the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968. The perfect place for a grizzled, disillusioned detective to sort out his issues, both private and professional, using a time-honored combination of violence, coercion, and intrigue.
The detective is Filiberto García, a 60-year-old former hit man turned government contractor. As the book opens, García is approached by the powers that be (embodied by a man called “The Colonel,” as much a junta-themed nickname as official title) to investigate a tip from Russian officials that plotters from “Outer Mongolia” plan to assassinate both the American and Mexican presidents when the two meet at a scheduled public ceremony in three days.
Working with García are two more veteran agents, one from the FBI and the other from the KGB. (The two men had in fact tried to kill each other some years before in Constantinople, but water flows easily under the bridge for professionals.)
García is not known for his subtlety. Scenes of violence, escalating in intensity from billy clubs to machine guns, are described by Bernal with feverish intensity, and the bodies begin to pile up immediately. (“You never leave me anybody to interrogate,” laments the Colonel.)
While chasing red herrings though the city’s multiethnic underground, his thoughts often return to Marta, the young Chinese girl he accidentally dragged into this mess and hid at his apartment, and toward whom he feels a mix of predatory attraction and fatherly protectiveness.
Bernal shifts seamlessly between third-person narration and first, effectively bringing the reader closer to García’s constant stream of anger, which he spews outwardly at the world for having the gall to change, and inwardly for his own failure to keep up.
“Now everything’s got to be done legally,” he complains to himself about a world he senses is changing around him. “Lawyers everywhere you look. And I don’t matter anymore. Beat it, old man . . . Before, you just needed balls. Now you need a degree.”
Where the novel separates most interestingly from familiar noir tropes, which abound, is the characterization of García. Male leads will usually carry a dark secret or two, but García is darkness wall-to-wall. He’s a monster; a bully, a murderer to be sure, and in fact a rapist, as he admits to the reader, with a shrug, about an incident from his younger days.
We are supposed to read some redemption in his relationship with Marta, but we never see him actually gain a more complete view of himself and his crimes, and the violent manner in which they part ways points toward a just punishment of Nietzschean eternal recurrence.
In the end, we are left with a dilemma: Is Bernal making an ironic statement about the fruitlessness of the life of the gun, or is he so delighted with rendering that life that he couldn’t fully imagine the negative valence that it might carry?
To readers in 2103, the evidence will point toward the latter. But Bernal was writing in the 1960s when the wave of self-conscious irony that would crash over all of art was only beginning to crest, and we can hardly expect him to wink at clichés before they were (completely) clichés.
Either way, he can write an exciting firefight, and his evocation of Mexico City during one its most turbulent hours is wonderfully evocative. It’s fun to watch García protect his neck, even if his soul is left undefended.