She just wants to lay in bed all night reading Raymond Chandler.
--Jim Carroll, "Three Sisters"
Self-alienation is the source of all degradation as well as, on the contrary, the basis of all true evaluation. The first step will be a look inward, an isolating contemplation of our self. Whoever remains standing here proceeds only halfway. The second step must be an active look outward, an autonomous, determined observation of the outer world.
Jim Carroll's song "Three Sisters" makes explicit the truism that popular culture provides pleasure. Miranda does not want to trifle with the needs of the boys who pursue her. Rather she wants to kick back, relax, and cuddle up with Mr. Chandler, a bedtime pursuit much more appealing than the tough, lonely, urban world outside her door. According to John G. Cawelti, literary escapism as such fulfills two psychological needs, a flight from boredom and a quest for order (Adventure 15-16). We need to be able to escape the ennui of our lives and be reassured that no matter how tough it gets out there, the world is ultimately knowable and rational. While the pleasure of popular fiction tempts us to get lost in the diversion of the text, we, as critics, must remember that these novels speak powerfully to the moment in which they were written. They are cultural commodities that have much to tell us about the historical, social, and political milieu in which they emerged. As Martin Priestman asserts, "Present day detective novels ask to be treated as serious books in their own right, rather than as the 'escape from literature' they were once expected to be".
Yet we can have our pleasure and our criticism too; they are not mutually exclusive. Detective novels can be entertaining and delightful reads, but they also answer questions about the writers who produce them and the cultures that consume them. "Nowhere more than in its popular literary genres," maintains Dennis Porter, "are the 'myths' of a culture more visible". The emergence and proliferation of the Chicana/o detective novel in the last two decades illuminate how Chicana/os grapple with feminism, homosexuality, familia, masculinity, mysticism, the nationalist subject, and U.S.-Mexico border relations. Thus, at the very core of the Chicana/o detective novel are "myths" central to how Chicana/os imagine themselves and their worlds.
Since Rolando Hinojosa published the first Chicana/o detective novel Partners in Crime (1985), the corpus of Chicana/o detective fiction has burgeoned into some twenty-odd detective novels written by five different authors (Rudolfo Anaya, Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Michael Nava, and Manuel Ramos). Despite this dramatic increase in cultural production, scholars have heretofore paid scant attention to the analysis of these novels. Brown Gumshoes, the first comprehensive study of the Chicana/o detective novel, examines the Chicana/o subject in the post-nationalist period (roughly the early 1980s to the present) in order to historicize and understand how and why Chicana/os construct the identities they do. These detective novels demonstrate the emergence of new discourses of identity, politics, and cultural citizenship that speak to the shifting historical moment in which Chicana/os have found themselves since the demise of the nationalist politics of the Chicana/o Movement (ca. 1965-1975). In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, when Chicana/os sought to solidify a unified identity to effect social change, the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s have been about understanding the protean nature of identity, power, and politics. Moreover, I contend that it is no coincidence that Chicana/o writers turned to the detective novel at this historical juncture--the form has a number of features to recommend it as a vehicle for understanding the Chicana/o subject in the post-nationalist period. I reflect on why the detective form takes hold of Chicana/o writers when it does and what specific features make it a productive form for grappling with post-nationalism.
Why have Chicana/o writers come to the detective story, a form developed in the mid-nineteenth century, so late in the twentieth century? One of the most plausible reasons Chicana/os did not write detective novels prior to the mid-1980s was an anxiety over the form itself. Chicana/o writers were already struggling against a publishing house preconception that their writing was too narrow, that it only spoke to a small minority of people in the United States. Indeed, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream presses largely overlooked Chicana/o authors. In addition, these Chicana/o writers were young intellectuals who wanted to be taken seriously as cultural workers. They wanted to write in such a way as to effect political change and bring about social justice. It is, then, not a tremendous stretch to argue that they imagined that writing in a popular form would only further isolate them and trivialize their work.
Although the detective novel has garnered a great deal of academic interest over the years, a literary snobbery still persists that renders popular fiction, especially genre fiction, a minor accomplishment, something well beneath the respectability of literature. Consequently, one still frequently sees dust jacket blurbs on detective novels that triumphantly claim, "This is much more than a detective novel," or, "Author X has transcended the bounds of the detective novel in her rich portrayal of the urban environment in contemporary Los Angeles." Such encomiums imply that the detective novel is less than literature, that only when it shakes off the shackles of its generic limitations can it be art. Thus, Chicana/o writers of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s avoided working in a form that would allow critics to dismiss them summarily because they were working in what was considered a trashy, minor genre. The taint of the popular was to be avoided.
Beginning in the 1980s, though, a boom in both women's detective fiction and multicultural detective stories enabled Chicana/o writers to view the detective novel as a legitimate cultural enterprise. Though women had been working in the form as far back as the nineteenth century and well through the twentieth, Sara Paretsky's, Sue Grafton's, and Marcia Muller's feminist rewritings of the hard-boiled detective in the 1980s spoke to readers' desires for something other than the usual wise-cracking, single, white, heterosexual, male sleuth that the hard-boiled school popularized beginning in the 1920s. In April 1990, Publishers Weekly maintained that "the woman as tough professional investigator has been the single most striking development in the detective novel in the past decade," and just thereafter Newsweek joined in: "Call her Samantha Spade or Philippa Marlowe and she would deck you. A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny--and female" (qtd. in Walton and Jones 10). Two of the most influential mainstream publications had recognized the importance of the female detective; the genre was thus in the public's eye as never before. A glance at the New York Times best-seller list indicates as well that there is space for these female and multicultural detectives. It does not take long for a new Sara Paretsky novel to hit the list, or for a new entry in Sue Grafton's alphabet series to rise to the top.
In addition to the popularity of the women's detective story was the coincident boom of the ethnic detective. In the words of Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Monika Mueller, "Ethnic detectives seem to be everywhere". This has been especially true for the African American investigator. As Paula Woods and Stephen Soitos demonstrably illustrate, the African American detective can be dated back to the turn of the twentieth century, appearing first in the writing of Pauline Hopkins. See, for instance, Hopkins's story "Talma Gordon," reprinted in Woods's collection Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century (1995). Then there is, of course, Rudolph Fisher's 1930s classic, The Conjure Man Dies, to say nothing of the famous exploits of Chester Himes's redoubtable duo, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, of the 1950s and 1960s. While it is important for critics to sketch out a lengthy genealogy of the African American detective novel so that we do not get our literary histories muddled and confuse the detective novel as the sole domain of white writers, it is during what Woods labels a "Third Renaissance" of black thought and writing in the 1980s and 1990s that the African American detective novel flourishes in a way analogous to the boom in women's detective fiction.
From this Third Renaissance came the works of such famous African American detective writers as Gar Anthony Haywood, Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, Gary Phillips, Mike Phillips, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula Woods, Charlotte Watson Sherman, and Valerie Wilson Wesley, to name only a few. Among these writers, Walter Mosley has gained perhaps the widest reputation. In 1995, his first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), was made into a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington; subsequently, in 1998, his collection of Socrates Fortlow stories, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, debuted as an HBO film with Laurence Fishburne as Socrates. In short, the feminist and ethnic rewritings of the detective novel made the genre an appealing form for Chicana/o writers.
With this boom in women and ethnic detectives arose a concomitant critical apparatus that shored up the power of the detective story. In addition to myriad journal articles on the intersections among race, ethnicity, gender, and detective fiction, a host of edited volumes appeared, as did numerous single-authored books. All of these further enhanced the credibility and cultural capital of detective fiction. If the detective novel was a form, then, in which Chicana/o writers could be taken seriously and with which, perhaps, they could even gain popular appeal and critical currency, was it also a form they could bend to their ends? Was there enough flexibility within the generic conventions to accommodate the concerns of the Chicana/o community?
New forms can often offer new answers. As the Greek writer Aeschylus turned to the drama (a form that did not exist in Greece prior to the sixth to fifth century B.C.E.) to understand the questions of justice, suffering, and evil under Greece's new democracy (James 152-154), Chicana/o authors have used the detective novel to understand the shifting political, social, cultural, and identitarian terrain of the post-nationalist period. The criminality that pervades the detective novel speaks to the alienation, criminalization, and violence surrounding Mexican Americans, both in large cities and along the border. Moreover, the detective novel's quest for order and a knowable universe offers a sense of security in changing times. These shifting and troubling times surface in the border relations of Hinojosa's Belken County, in the ambivalence over nationalist politics in Corpi's and Ramos's novels, in the violence perpetrated against homosexuals in Nava's Henry Rios series, and in the metaphysical battle for the heart and soul of Nuevo Mexicana/os in Anaya's Sonny Baca series. In short, each of these series encapsulates the detective story's "desire to comprehend the unknowable, malevolent, irrational force which drives [it] in its urban setting, rooted in nineteenth-century fears of degeneration, and twentieth-century fears of anomie and alienation" (Munt 13).
While from a critical distance it is possible to historicize the shift from nationalism to post-nationalism, I want to emphasize that this change generated a heightened sense of ambivalence and anxiety (as we will see in Ramos's and Corpi's series) for many Chicana/os. With the shifting post-nationalist order, that is the movement away from a solidarity of sameness and toward a dynamics of difference, many Chicana/os were both prepared to embrace this change and ambivalent about the modes of identification that a new set of shaping historical, economic, and cultural discourses would bring. Even if the new identity constructions spoke more aptly to the complex groups of people identified and identifying as Chicana/o, it is a dramatic event to have one's identity shaken to its foundations. With its emphasis on reason, order, justice, and alienation, the detective novel is better suited than other genres to identify the shifting terrain of post-nationalism and to address the existential concerns that change entails. As John Cawelti observes, "The criminal act disrupts the social fabric, and the detective must use his unique investigative skills to sew it back together again." In so doing "the skillful writer can reveal certain aspects of a culture that otherwise remain hidden" ("Detecting" 44)--and can also reveal, I would add, elements of a culture recently emerging, such as the post-national Chicana/o subject.
Let us consider for a moment the typical hero of the detective novel. S/he is the alienated outsider, the moral man or woman in the corrupt world. In his now-classic essay on the detective novel, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944), Raymond Chandler made this patently clear. Speaking of the hero of the hard-boiled detective novel, he states, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. [. . .] He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor [. . .]. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world". Despite decades of rewriting, this notion of the alienated, moral hero persists and defines the genre. In describing the appeal of his detective Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley maintains, "I think people want to listen to him because they know that he is asking questions and looking for answers that are important to them. [. . .] he's trying to define himself in spite of the world, to live by his own system of values. He's trying to do what is right in an imperfect world. The genre may be a mystery, but the underlying questions are moral and ethical, even existential" ("The Black Dick" 133). The clash Chandler and Mosley describe between the moral detective and the imperfect world "only deepens," argue Hans Bertens and Theo D'haen, "as the twentieth century wears on" .
This feeling of being on the outside, being the alienated other, thematizes the hero of the detective novel and resonates especially well with Chicana/os, who though subjects of the nation are often represented as alien to it. The dominant feeling for most Mexican Americans living in a post-Treaty of Guadalupe world is that they belong neither on the U.S. nor the Mexican side of the border. The Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Martínez captures these feelings of dislocation in his multi-genre text, The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City, and Beyond (1992). He notes, "Wherever I am now, I must be much more than two. I must be North and South in the North and in the South".
During the 1960s, numerous Chicana/os attempted to overcome rather than embrace this quandary by imagining Aztlán as their mythic homeland, a place to return to, a place in which to locate one's roots. As Mary Pat Brady observes, "By focusing on Aztlán, Chicanos could rearticulate their own experience, not as unwelcome migrants to the United States, not as exiles from the Mexican Revolution, not as dispossessed and landless peoples, but as a community with an ancient, even autochthonous relationship to a significant geographical portion of the United States". While in many ways the cultural and political nationalist politics behind this homeland gesture have given way since the 1980s, it still has a powerful symbolic residue for a number of Chicana/os. Aztlán offered a place of being for the alienated Chicana/o other. By contrast, the Chicana/o detective novel offers the alienated hero not a mythic homeland, but a discursive space from which to examine the world and its shaping discourses.
Further, alienation is not always an unproductive state. As the Novalis epigraph at the beginning of this chapter makes clear, we would do well to remember that alienation is not only about degradation, it is an opportunity for evaluation, an evaluation that I believe is crucial for a population whose identities are often under siege. In other words, that alienated hero, that cultural other, is both out and in. One can never truly step outside the discourses (e.g., race, nation, sexuality, gender, class) that structure one's identity. We are always imbricated within them, but when we recognize those moments of alienation, of not belonging, as the detective hero always does, then we can find ways to turn that degradation into evaluation. As Andrew Pepper argues of the "black or Native American detective," his or her "fractured sense of self [. . .] problematizes a straightforward model of identity formation" and allows that detective better opportunities "to view the polyethnic environment in suitably ambiguous terms" ("Bridges" 242).
Yet we cannot blithely accept alienation as a term with an explanatory power all its own. As Carl Gutiérrez-Jones avers, "Notions of alienation, whether Marxist or psychoanalytic, [. . .] are highly abstract and thus limited in their ability to explain specific cultural contexts" (Rethinking the Borderlands 130). Despite this abstraction, the hero's alienated stance is a perch from which to see from a new angle, a way to look askew at social relations so as to more powerfully evaluate them. The alienation in itself is not a powerful optic, but what gets seen from that standpoint shows us the contingent, as opposed to necessary, nature of many social structures. In the language of the Russian formalists, it defamiliarizes and allows us to see things afresh, as if for the first time.
From Rolando Hinojosa to Michael Nava, to Lucha Corpi, to Manuel Ramos, to Rudolfo Anaya, that project of self-evaluation and of understanding the discourses that shape identity remains at the heart of their novels. Their heroes capture what Paul Auster's detective protagonist, Quinn, realizes in City of Glass, namely that the concerns over knowledge (epistemology) in the detective novel reveal central tenets about being and identity (ontology): "The term [private eye] held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter 'i,' standing for 'investigator,' it was 'I' in the upper case, the tiny life-bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was also the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him".
Detective novels, then, combine epistemology and ontology in the following fashion: the driving force behind these narratives is a quest for knowledge. Indeed, the successful detective enlists and combines multiple ways of knowing the world--interviews, rational deduction, empirical data (such as fingerprints, photographs, time of death, etc.), and very often intuition or hunches--in order to solve the crime or crimes under investigation. In working through these epistemological concerns--How do I know what I know? How do I know what I know is true? How do I use this knowledge to apprehend the criminal?--the detective invariably enters into an ontological query into his/her own sense of being in the world. Or, as Laurence Roth has recently argued about American Jewish detective fiction, detective novels are "a kind of identity-shaping project". He further adds that American Jewish detective stories are a part of "the process of modern Jewish self-definition and self-explanation". This identity project takes hold in the bind between ways of knowing and ways of being.
To elaborate, detective novels are about discerning the mysteries of identity. At the heart of their narrative, after all, is the quest to reveal who the criminal is. In a diverse array of mystery novels, however, time and again the detective also unravels a mystery about him- or herself. The novel is as much his or her story as it is the story of the crime. As Alex Abella's fictional detective/lawyer notes during one of his investigations: "I wanted to know about these people [the practitioners of santería he is investigating] and by so doing come to know myself as well" (Killing 74).
For the detective to interpret the traces left by the criminal is to engage simultaneously in a process of self-exegesis. Peter Hühn argues that the detective is the reader of a crime written by a criminal, and in order to remain free, the criminal must write his story in such a way as to lead the reader/detective down the wrong path. This reading detective, however, takes on identity implications as well as hermeneutic ones. That is, in interpreting the criminal traces, the detective, especially the hard-boiled one, becomes engaged in an ongoing struggle with the criminal, a struggle that affects the detective's identity in ways that it does not in the ratiocinative mysteries of the classical, locked-room type. Hühn maintains that "interpretation, as practiced by the private eye, is presented as an interaction between the reading subject and the object (the text [i.e., the one written by the criminal in committing the crime]) in which neither side remains a stable entity. The detective's reading activities affect the text (the mystery he investigates) as he in turn is affected by it" (461; emphasis in original). That the detective's interaction with the criminal text reveals fragments of his or her identity and shows that identity is always in process is yet another feature of the genre that makes it perfectly suitable for the Chicana/o writers who explore how changing identity paradigms have made the Chicana/o subject a not-"stable entity." This is not to pathologize; rather I want to highlight how this generic convention underscores identity as process, not product--as a state both of being and becoming.
As a final note about the importance of detective fiction for understanding post-nationalist Chicana/o identities, I want to temper the frequent claim that popular genres invariably reach mass audiences and thereby become powerful tools for social change. As a mass-market genre, the detective novel promises to reach an audience beyond the camps of the usual literati, no slight concern for a group of writers who have always connected their cultural projects to larger political and social concerns. One must be careful, however, not to assume that working in a popular genre necessarily translates into mass sales, nor should one mistakenly conflate popularity with political change. This is why I say that working in a popular genre promises to reach a large audience. Indeed, the publishing history of Chicana/o detective novels shows that that promise has been infrequently fulfilled.
Lucha Corpi and Rolando Hinojosa both publish with Arte Público, a fine, but small, independent press out of Houston, Texas. A stroll through a commercial bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders (i.e., one likely to attract a popular audience and generate mass sales) turns up very few, if any, titles by Arte Público. This press, which deserves much credit for promoting and supporting Latina/o writers, simply does not have the distribution and promotional resources of a larger trade press. Hinojosa and Corpi publish with Arte Público in part because that press keeps their work in print, a fate not shared by many mass-market publications.
Michael Nava, the most prolific Chicano detective novelist, publishes with Alyson, a press that also supports its authors by keeping their books in print, but like Arte Público, its sales figures cannot compete with a larger publishing house. Ballantine, however, purchased the paperback rights for two of Nava's seven novels (The Hidden Law  and How Town ), increasing his circulation and bearing testimony to his marketability. In addition, his last three novels (The Burning Plain , The Death of Friends , and Rag and Bone ) came out with G. P. Putnam and made it into mass-market paperbacks. Manuel Ramos publishes with St. Martins, a major outlet for detective fiction. Of his four novels to date, however, only the first one (The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz) has been brought out in paperback, and more depressingly, of the four novels (all published between 1993 and 1997), it is the only one still in print. Contrary to the suggestion that these novels are reaching a broad audience, this history suggests that his novels did not generate enough popular sales to merit paperback editions.
Rudolfo Anaya has enjoyed the vast distribution capabilities of Time Warner for his three-volume Sonny Baca series (Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter), but he did not need the detective novel genre to garner an audience for his ideas. He had captured a mass following with the publication of his coming-of-age tale, Bless Me, Ultima, in 1972.
The general claim that detective novels typically reach a broad audience is correct. With Chicana/o detective writers, however, that has not usually been the case. The publishing history I just traced offers a suggestive idea about the scope of these novels' sales. In short, they do not compete with those of typical mass-market detective fiction, such as that of J. A. Jance, whose novels now have initial print runs of 195,000 (Walton and Jones 26). Mass sales aside, however, these novels make important forays into understanding the contemporary historical moment and the position of the Chicana/o subject within it.
The five body chapters of this book share productive overlaps and make unique contributions to the investigation of post-nationalist Chicana/o identities. Each chapter focuses on a particular writer; the chapters are arranged chronologically according to the publication date of the first novel in each of the writer's series. I begin with Rolando Hinojosa's Rafe Buenrostro series and argue that in Partners in Crime and Ask A Policeman the escalation of crime Hinojosa depicts speaks directly to the changing economic and social relations along the U.S.-Mexico border in the late twentieth century. These advancing economic relations, moreover, reduce human beings to economic commodities, alienating Hinojosa's characters from home and family, the imagined refuge of the Chicana/o community. This heightened sense of alienation, I contend, ultimately compels Hinojosa to adopt rhetoric of nostalgia and despair to make sense of the post-nationalist times along the border.
Chapter two examines Michael Nava's Henry Rios series. A gay lawyer working principally out of the Bay Area, Rios is an amateur sleuth who in the pursuit of justice illustrates a multiplicity of ways for us to consider a series of practices that would queer, and thereby open up, the dominant discourses of family and home. This reading of the contemporary Chicana/o subject reveals a range of practices and discourses about Chicano homosexuality that has been largely absent from critical discussions of the Chicano subjectivity.
In chapter three, I argue that Lucha Corpi's Gloria Damasco series seeks to understand better how history and memory shape identity and to gauge their corresponding impact on political movements. With each novel, Corpi, a feminist writer steeped in the Chicana/o activism of the 1960s and 1970s, struggles with the often-monolithic construction of Chicana/o cultural identity associated with the Chicana/o Movement. In coming to recognize the fluidity of identity, Damasco grows increasingly ambivalent about her cultural identity because as she tries to construct a historically causal chain to solve the novels' mysteries and understand her identity formation, she finds herself bumping up against the discontinuities of the past and the present, as well as against her own nostalgia for the Movement.
Chapter four moves to Denver, Colorado, for Manuel Ramos's Luis Montez series. His detective, much like Corpi's, finds himself embroiled in an existential quest that pits his Movement identity against a shifting, unstable, contemporary one. This chapter addresses the practice and performance of masculinity--a subject, incidentally, with which Chicana/o studies has not engaged with much depth or breadth. Montez must investigate how the Movement-era discourses of nationalism and carnalismo (brotherhood) inscribe and potentially undermine his masculinity. Underpinning this inquiry is a racial anxiety that he may become an anachronism rendered obsolete and invisible in the post-nationalist moment.
In chapter five, I maintain that Rudolfo Anaya's conflicted retreat to the mythical and mystical in his Sonny Baca series runs counter to both social change and the evidentiary and ratiocinative concerns of the detective novel. Throughout the series Anaya demonstrates his awareness of pressing social concerns in New Mexico such as homelessness, unemployment, nuclear poisoning, and the drug trade, but these concerns become no more than indices of the larger battle between good and evil, which Baca fights on spiritual rather than material grounds. Moreover, Baca's spiritual battle casts him in the awkward role of the Chicano Everyman, an untenable position in a world of proliferating and protean identity formations.
The conclusion revisits the broad arguments of the study to draw together its reflections on detection and identification and to meditate briefly on the model's applicability for Latina/o writers not from the Chicana/o community, such as Carolina Garcia-Aguilera and Marcos McPeek Villatoro. Thinking through the works of these writers allows me to point toward some suggestive comparative angles for Latina/o Studies.
This book, then, situates the Chicana/o detective novel as a signal marker of post-nationalism. While one would not wish to argue that Chicana and Chicano writers began composing mystery novels because of a turn to post-nationalism, the detective novel offers a unique optic for understanding the shift in modes of identification and its connection to changing social relations in the post-nationalist period. The Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s and 1970s had been a powerful tool for effecting necessary educational, political, social, and economic transformation, but given the changing political and social environment of the 1980s, it was time to look for new political and cultural strategies to effect change and figure out one's place in the world. In other words, the nationalist models of sameness were giving way to new models of difference. As George Lipsitz observes, we must "accept the necessity for each generation to fashion a social warrant appropriate to its own historically specific needs and circumstances" (American Studies 56). In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, that warrant has been to understand identity not as stable, but as dynamic, not as biologically determined, but as socially constructed. As a product of this historical period, the Chicana/o detective novel has much to tell us about the dynamics of difference and the evolving Chicana/o subject.