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Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

July 18, 2015 12 comments

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. (1976) French title: Jours de combat. Translated by Marianne Millon.

This is my second contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II was present at the book festival Quais du Polar. I have a signed copy of Jours de Combat and now I wished I had read one of his books before meeting him. I have tons of questions for him. Days of Combat is the first volume of the series featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I’m afraid it’s OOP in English but other volumes of the series are available.

Taibo_combatWe’re in Mexico and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has just left his wife and his job to get a PI license and start his own investigation business. He shares offices with a plumber, Gilberto Gómez Letras. He’s still questioning the financial viability of this adventure but he was tired of his old life. He worked as a foreman in a factory before he left his tidy life behind. The catalyst of the change is the series of murders committed by a serial killer who leaves messages as the Cervo. (At least, that’s how it’s translated into French, “brain” with a spelling mistake. I supposed it could become “brayne” in English)

In a city where the police are corrupt and useless, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to chase this strangler. Three threads are fascinating to follow in this first opus of the series. First, we get acquainted with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his life, his thoughts and his family. Then of course, we follow the investigation and the unusual PI methods that belong to Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. And last, he takes us all over Mexico, to the point that the city becomes something fundamental in the novel.

Our main character, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne comes from mixed origins. His father is Basque and his mother is Irish. He was born around 1944 and is freshly divorced from Claudia. The divorce is was difficult. He has a sister, Elisa who’s coming home after spending several years in Canada and a brother, Carlos, who’s an active unionist. The siblings are reunited in this novel and start to get each other again. Belascoarán Shayne also meets the girl with the ponytail who will obviously become a recurring character in the series.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is a detective who relies on psychology and understanding of the killer’s motivations. If I had to compare him to another famous investigator, I’d choose Commissaire Adamsberg, the policeman in crime fiction books by Fred Vargas. In Days of Combat, instead of looking for material clues, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to bait the killer by participating to a TV show on famous stranglers in crime history. It’s a game like Jeopardy. If he answers the questions correctly, he keeps playing and wins a prize. He’s not there for the prize, though. He’s there to tease the strangler, to tempt him to get out of the woods and above all, let him know he’s on his trail.

I won’t tell more about the murders and the investigation. I said earlier that Mexico plays an important part in the novel. Following Belascoarán Shayne all around Mexico gives us an idea of the city. The novel is atmospheric and the strong impression is enforced by the author’s gift for descriptions.

Le soleil tapait là-haut et l’idée romantique que le soleil l’accompagnerait toute la journée l’abandonna peu à peu, peut-être malgré lui. La ville était une flaque d’asphalte dans laquelle nous transpirions tous. The sun was hitting hard over there and the romantic idea that the sun would accompany him his all day long left him progressively, perhaps in spite of himself. The city was a pool of asphalt in which we were all sweating.

But Mexico is a hard city to live in. The police are inefficient and violence is part of everyday life.

La ville se nourrit de charogne. Comme un vautour, comme une hyène, comme l’urubu si mexicain qui se repaît des morts pour la patrie. Et la ville avait faim. Aussi les faits divers dégoulinèrent-ils une nouvelle fois de sang, ce jeudi-là : un accident entre un autocar de ligne et le train de Cuernavaca qui avait fait seize morts, un homme criblé de balles par sa femme « pour qu’il n’emmène plus jamais son copain voir les putes », une vieille femme poignardée pour trois cents pesos à la sortie du métro, la répression d’une grève dans la colonia Escandón, dont le bilan se soldait par deux ouvriers blessés par balle et une femme d’un quartier proche intoxiquée par les gaz. The city feeds itself on corpses. Like a vulture, like a hyena, like the so-Mexican urubu that feeds on people who died for their country. And the city was hungry. Therefore the news trickled down with blood that Thursday. An accident between a coach and the train to Cuernavaca with a death toll of sixteen people. A man riddled with bullets by his wife “so that he will never again bring his friend to the whores”. An old woman stabbed for three hundred pesos at the metro exit. The repression of a strike in the colonia Escandón, whose casualties were two workers hit by bullets and a woman in the neighbourhood, intoxicated by fumes.

Mexico sounds like a bloodthirsty ogre intent on devouring its children. At the same time, Paco Ignacio Taibo II shows its liveliness, the streets, the restaurants, the people.

Days of Combat is a novel with a strong sense of place people with unusual characters. After reading it, I want to know more about Belascoarán Shayne, what will happen to him and his family. But I also want to know more about the Mexico he pictures. Political criticism seeps through the lines, which always interests me. It’s crime fiction that aims to be more than a quick read about an investigation. And it succeeds. Highly recommended.

PS: Guy has reviewed several books of the series:

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