Detectives off their patch

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 23, 2013

Recently finished reading The Neruda Case, a fine novel by Roberto Ampuero. The author’s Cuban-American-Chilean protagonist, Cayetano Brulé, spends the book learning on the job (and from Maigret novels) how to be a detective. At one point, he muses at some length on how Maigret and other (fictional) detectives who are his primary reference points could ultimately offer him few practical lessons, not because they are fictional but because they are from an entirely different society:

Even if he braved the underworld and greased his relationships with informants, Miagret could never accomplish anything in a region as chaotic, improvised, and unpredictable as Latin America. Just like the gentleman Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Maigret could investigate his heart out in stable and organized nations like the United States and France, where a rational philosophy reigned over the people, rules and clear laws prevailed, logic shaped daily life, and solid, prestigious institutions and an efficient police force worked to ensure respect for the law. On the other hand, in Latin America—where improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day—everything was possible.

In a place where a communist nation coexisted with modern capitalist cities, feudally exploitative if not enslaving plantations, and jungles where history had frozen in the times of the cavemen, European detectives weren’t worth a thing. It was that brutally simple. In those Amazonian, Andean, or Caribbean worlds, detective such as Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot would find their dazzling deductive powers failing to clear matters up. The crux of the problem was that the North’s logic simply didn’t apply in Latin America.

I find this interesting for a number of reasons.

First, perhaps, simply because every single detective Brulé considers in his musings—he goes on to name three or four more—is fictional. Nothing really strange or surprising, there, of course. This is essentially my book’s very raison d’être, i.e. that all of the notable detectives familiar to the average person have for some time been fictional. Still: what a perfect illustration of my point.

Beyond that, Brulé’s speculations invite debate on various points. As far as “who’s stronger, Superman or Hulk” arguments about fictional detectives go, my own book admittedly grew out of such a nerdy match-up, but in this case I’ll leave it well enough to say that of course Sherlock Holmes could be effective in Latin America, because he’s Sherlock Holmes. (And because he’s fictional. He can rise from the dead; why not best Latin American cultural differences?)

Regarding real detectives, though, questions about how effective someone can be outside his (or her) home territory are entirely valid and interesting, in my opinion. Most of the great detectives I’ve chronicled had some sort of “home turf,” in which they presumably benefited from familiarity with people and customs—but in some cases they stretched the definition of a “local territory” at least right up to the whole “Western world” that Brulé considers Northern detectives’ limit. And in some cases even beyond that.

Vidocq and Whicher were both relatively local detectives, mostly sticking to their respective nations’ capitals. (Though for what it’s worth, I have a difficult time believing that Vidocq, for all his impressive reasoning, was not also entirely freewheeling and improvisational enough to manage anything Latin America might have thrown at him.)

The Pinkertons, however, and “Paddington” Pollaky were all regular travelers. Pollaky’s movements were restricted to Europe, and Allan Pinkerton’s to the United States (and Canada), admittedly. But William and Robert Pinkerton were at least as well-traveled as Brulé becomes in the course of The Neruda Case, repeatedly taking ship not only to Europe but also the Caribbean and South America. From what I can tell they managed fairly well there, too.

For that matter even Whicher and Ellis Parker, though they didn’t rack up the miles personally, managed to make sense of trails that passed through Latin America a time or two.

On the whole, I have to suspect that while Cayetano Brulé was probably reasonable to doubt how much he could learn about practical detective work from mystery novels… the careers of real-life great detectives, had he known of them, suggest a good deal more geographic adaptability than he imagines the global North capable of.

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