…So Close to the United States

While Pancho Villa lamented Mexico's proximity to the United States in relation to its distance from the Almighty, those of us in El Norte can rejoice as we have these books, full of suspense and local color, to take us there vicariously.

Lili Wright's Dancing With the Tiger could have been a huge mess. There are lots of characters and places to keep track of and twists and turns that hinge on a few sentences. Brilliantly, Wright decides to tell the story from these characters' viewpoints, and the personalities are well-drawn enough that it is easy to distinguish them from each other. The story itself concerns the looting and acquisition of the funerary mask of Montezuma, last king of the Aztecs. Who should have it? The looter who dug it up? The drug lord who paid the looter to dig it up? One of the dueling gringo art collectors willing to pay good money to have it? Or perhaps the Mexican people as part of one of the local museums? This is a compelling story that moves at the pace of a thriller, but it is Wright's obvious love of Mexico and its citizens that shines through.

In The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant, César and Héctor are trapped in a water truck en route to the United States. Sealed in with other migrants by human smugglers and apparently abandoned when the truck breaks down, Héctor finds a cell phone on the injured César and calls the only American number listed. While he has no signal, Héctor recounts how he got inside that water truck. This takes us to Oaxaca and the ancient practices that have survived colonization, particularly the growing of corn. While Héctor has a college education, he can't earn as much in Mexico as he can doing stoop labor in the U.S. His friend César in the meantime has stumbled on a secret involving agribusiness that he could get killed for. One gets a real feeling not only for rural Mexico, but the cramped despair that is quickly descending on the inmates of the water truck. Again, the author's love of Mexico, particularly the rural areas, is abundantly evident.

Of course, if you like suspense on the border, there's also Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope when he comes across a bloody crime scene including a good deal of heroin and over two million dollars. Leaving the drugs but taking the money, Moss becomes the prey of a freelancing ex-special-forces vet and a psychopath with a twisted sense of justice. Trying to keep the three separated and from tearing up the country he loves so much is Sheriff Bell, considered one of the best-realized characters McCarthy has created. Scenes of violent action and nail-nibbling suspense are punctuated by Bell's elegiac ruminations on the world gone by and what it has become. McCarthy has written extensively about the  Southwest, but this may be his most luminous, and at the same time dark, outing yet.

Got other suspenseful tales based in Mexico and nearby? Let us know in the comments.

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