Detective in a Red Dress

Paula L. Woods is the author of "Inner City Blues: A Charlotte Justice Novel."

There rages in some literary circles an unending debate about whether to include genre fiction in the literary canon. Should romances, science fiction or mysteries be considered as "serious" literature, or mere entertainments? Can a writer of such fiction be considered in the same breath as the masters of literature?

It is ultimately a tiresome argument, one that should be put to rest when we consider that authors as diverse as Charles Dickens or, more recently, Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, have used genre fiction forms, particularly the crime novel, to eloquently express themselves. And some, like Chester Himes, are remembered more for their crime novels than their "serious" fiction. Perhaps this is because Himes and other modern masters of the mystery genre treat its conventions as merely that--conventions that can be stretched, twisted and subverted in the service of a good story, well-told.

Add to that chorus of writers the name of Los Angeles writer Marcos McPeek Villatoro, whose most recent novel, "Home Killings," marks the debut of Romilia Chacon, a homicide detective of Salvadoran descent. Recently transplanted from Atlanta to Nashville, the rookie detective finds herself an outsider looking in on several levels--as the only Latina and woman on a good ol' boys' police force and as a Latina working for the law which is, for many Latinos who emigrated from countries where police corruption is rampant.

Villatoro capitalizes on this sense of dual identities to create a fascinating story revolving around the death of Diego Saenz, a reporter for the Cumberland Journal. Det. Chacon is assigned the case as the resident "Latino" expert and makes a startling discovery that links the dead newspaper reporter, at first deemed a suicide, to the ritual murders of a prominent founder of a community clinic and a nurse who volunteered at a homeless shelter, murders for which a man has been arrested and imprisoned. Are the killings the work of a copycat or the renegade members of a Guatemalan death squad, sending a warning to the drug dealers of the city? And how is Nashville's most prominent new resident, a wealthy, handsome and mysterious Guatemalan named Rafael Murillo, involved?

Villatoro places his detective in the midst of these warring elements and does a fine job of revealing the conflict through Chacon's character, a spike-heeled, red dress-wearing woman who rejects the traditional expectations of her family: "And yet I never had the desire to send lady-like messages. I was a homicide detective, not a damned church debutante who waited on her fifteenth birthday at the church doors for the perfect man to come by and sweep her away. I'm Latina, but damned if I'll be that Latina."

The kind of Latina we get in Det. Chacon is a lover of classical music and the writing of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish. A woman who can point out the differences in appearance between a Tex-Mex and a Guatemalan, or the richness of idioms used by different Spanish speakers. Here especially Villatoro does a fine job of giving the reader an invaluable immersion in Latino cultures and language without slowing the narrative, or letting us forget that Chacon is our sometimes uneasy guide. A scene where she translates the brutal interrogation of a Guatemalan janitor is a moment where she and we feel her discomfort: "Though I was flowing again, my translation nipped at itself, like an old phonograph record whose needle has jumped. My brain rattled about, looking for the line of the words, trying to catch up to what my partner was saying. Yet my brain also crackled, as if other thoughts wished to break through the translation. It was weariness, no doubt, a crack in the conduit of interpretation."

There are few cracks in Villatoro's interpretation of the crime novel. A poet and author of a previous novel, "The Holy Spirit of My Uncle's Cojones," Villatoro has immersed himself in the police procedural form and has delivered a story, while conventional on some levels, that is enlivened by an enigmatic protagonist one hopes to see again as well as a richness of setting and characterizations that makes "Home Killings" one of the best novels--mystery or otherwise--you'll read this summer.

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