Last week’s news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature led to me pick up “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” Llosa’s version of a hard-boiled detective mystery translated into backwater South America.
What permeates this whole work is a feeling of listless indifference. The first chapter describes the body of Palomino Molero - an bony young airman in the Peruvian Air Force who is later found dead, virtually emasculated. Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma begin their investigations in a lackadaisical fashion - not by choice, but because of their limitations. They need a cab to the crime scene. They walk long distances when they cannot get a ride. Though witnesses mourn the loss of Molero’s singing voice, they don’t seem all that interested in who killed him, or why.
Llosa does something interesting here with pace and tone. This novel is only 150 pages long. Descriptions are spare. Dialogue dominates the narrative. There are the usual tricks of the mystery in that information we glean may only be momentarily correct. But action is, like the setting, listless and slow. Suppositions often lead to recalibration. Palomino Molero, for example, is not a draftee but an enlistee. The reason for this becomes clearer when Silva and Lituma uncover the reasons he joined. As a barmaid says, “He brought on his own tragedy.” Silva and Lituma must then navigate the no man’s land between military and civilian justice.
The reason for everyone’s indifference, outside our two lawmen, is the corruption one sees on every page. Molero’s murder is an outrage because “in these parts, people kill each other fair and square, man to man. But crucifying, torturing, that’s new.” Whatever solution Silva and Lituma find is discarded as being a cover story to allow the real guilty parties, shadowy higher-ups, to escape unnamed and unpunished.
As with all good hard boiled noir, Llosa gives you as much atmosphere as mystery. But instead of a big city with the corruption of politics and technology, instead we get the sweat from the sun in a mostly rural, corrupt backwater fetid with the scent of chicken droppings and endless toil.
Even Silva does not seem to care so much about catching a murderer as catching the barmaid whom he spies on at the riverside during her morning bath. Llosa gives, in the middle of a murder investigation, a playful, laughing regard for life. Life - which eludes easy definition and promises mystery once the first question is asked.
As Lieutenant Silva says, “Only death is definitive.”
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