RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Come along with us now as we dodge the summer sun and go noir instead. It's the start of our annual summer reading series, Crime in the City, about fictional detectives, the dark deeds they investigate, and the cities they inhabit. This morning we head south of the border to meet Hector Belascoran Shayne. Belascoran is a one-eyed private eye who shares a dingy flat in Mexico City with a flock of ducks and a rotating cast of lovers.
He's the creation of writer Paco Ignacio Taibo the Second who also lives in the crowded heart of the Mexican capital. NPR's Jason Beaubien investigates.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The detective novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo veer in and out of reality. Historical figures mix with fictional characters. Things happen or maybe they didn't. One entire novel, "The Uncomfortable Dead," is actually written with Sub-Commandante Marcos, the former leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. And it includes a fictional cameo appearance by Sub-Commandante Marcos.
The central character in Taibo's crime novels is Hector Belascoran Shayne, a former engineer who got a certificate in detection through a correspondence course. Belascoran is a cynical, bumbling private-eye who marvels at the chaotic street life unfolding around him in Mexico City.
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BEAUBIEN: Belascoran doesn't have a car. He calls himself a street detective. Usually he rides the overcrowded subway squeezed between drunks and office workers and an interminable stream of vendors selling pens, Kleenex and balls made of super putty.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)
BEAUBIEN: In "No Happy Ending" the omniscient narrator says of Belascoran...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: His only way to survive was to accept the chaos and become one with it. Take yourself lightly, but the city, seriously. Mexico City, that porcupine filled with quills and soft wrinkles. Damn, he was in love with this place. Another impossible love on his list.
BEAUBIEN: Taibo claims Mexico City is the only real city in the world.
PACO IGNACIO TAIBO II: There are some almost real cities like New York or Amsterdam. But the real one is this one. This is the city.
BEAUBIEN: Taibo's Mexico City is a city of sharp contrasts. It's a city with strict smog rules barring certain cars from driving certain days of the week, yet each morning hulking, battered busses spew plumes of black smoke out their tailpipes.
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BEAUBIEN: This bustling metropolis of 20 million people is home to both the richest man in the world and to peasants who don't even have running water. Unlike the urban elite or the party people, Hector Belascoran Shayne lives in a dark, violent version of Mexico City.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We experience different cities, linked by the abuses of power and fear, corruption, and the eternal threat of descent into the jungle that hides in the system; it pops up regularly to remind us that we are fragile, that we are alone, that one day we will be fodder for the buzzards.
BEAUBIEN: Taibo hasn't written a new Belascoran novel since the current drug war began in Mexico six years ago. He plans to, eventually, but for now he calls President Felipe Calderon's war against organized crime complicated ground for fiction.
II: The narco war has changed everything in relations between society, crime, insecurity, law and order. These deep changes in our society make you, as a writer, to rethink the whole thing.
BEAUBIEN: As the death toll from the drug war ratchets higher, the Mexican capital has come to be viewed as a sanctuary from the violence.
II: Mexico City is the safest city in Mexico. Everybody says that. I even believe it. And it's true. Why? The narcos have created paradise here. They can live here but doesn't work here. It's the resting city of the Narcos. What is this? Very complex city, I love it.
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BEAUBIEN: A city of sidewalk cafes, mariachis and gruesome newspaper headlines. It's a great place to be a fiction writer, Taibo says, because every day he's forced to deal with complexity, with economic inequality, with corruption, with environmental destruction and pollution.
At one point he describes an exhausted Belascoran peering out at the skyline and seeing a city that was trying to hide itself in the smog. In Taibo's hands the Mexican capital becomes a magical metropolis where anything can happen. For instance at the end of "No Happy Ending" Belascoran is killed off, but fortunately for his fans the eccentric, one-eyed detective pops back to life in the next novel. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.
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MONTAGNE: Explore Mexico City for yourself through photographs and readings at npr.org/crimeinthecity. There's also an interactive map with all the authors featured in the series over the years.
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MONTAGNE: Crime in the City continues through this summer so get your library card ready or charge up that e-reader. We'll revisit some old haunts from past summers and also explore new cities like Oslo, Honolulu, Atlanta, and this Monday, Philadelphia. That's where a massive statue of an angel looms inside the city's downtown train station. It's also a site for murder as imagined by author Solomon Jones.
SOLOMON JONES: By 1:30, 30th Street Station was a madhouse. Trains were backed up, Amtrak police with dogs and rifles were patrolling the stations and platforms. Sandwich and coffee shops were closed, commuters were afraid. And it was all because of an angel.
Today, that depiction of the archangel Michael lifting a fallen soldier flanked by a Greco-Roman column stretching nearly 100 feet from floor to ceiling, was surrounded by crime scene tape. And the dead man at the statue's base was not about to be swept up to heaven.
MONTAGNE: Mystery writer Solomon Jones introduces us to his Philadelphia on the next Crime in the City.