A Death in Mexico is 'noir' at its seediest, crossing all the t's, dotting all the i's and undressing all the ladies in this most formulaic of genres. But Woods takes it deeper into the lurid depths of the dime magazine culture with its corrupt, mescal-drinking cops and a plethora of high-maintenance women who seem unhappy in their underwear. It floored me, this journey into my previously-unchartered territory of exploitation. It was unexpected. My own fault. The fact that the book is published by New Pulp Press really should have given it away. I was expecting something neo-noir. What I got was a full on rudimentary pulp fiction styling. And once I had accepted that, I found A Death in Mexico to be a darkly humorous and downright gripping story.
The sole wall decoration was a calendar. Ms February, a full-breasted woman in black lace panties, sprawled like a deer carcass across the hood of a Dodge Viper.
The homicide detective of film and literature is not a happy man. He drinks too much, smokes like a chimney, and swears like a trooper. Hector Diaz is no exception - tangled up in red tape, under the careful scrutiny of his superiors, bereaved, hardened, unable to keep a woman, rubbing shoulders with the priest and the prostitutes, 'Suddenly he awoke and propped himself up on his elbows. His eyes were slits in the rough burlap of his face.'
The body of an American woman has been found, dumped in the central plaza. The ensuing investigation will lead Diaz through a labyrinth of tempestuous artists, their supine models and greedy gallery owners, into an underworld of drugs, lust and corruption. But this, of course, is Mexico, a Catholocised country still tripping over with fear of Aztec deities. It is a place Woods depicts with some spot-on descriptions - the heat, the frenzy, the chaos of fiesta. You feel drunk just reading it.
'She sipped her Margarita, rolling the piquant concoction over her tongue, exploring its labyrinthine intricacies. Limejuice, with the metallic essence of a copper coin; blue agave tequila like a long, lingering kiss.'
I've never been to Mexico. I don't need to now. Colours are enhanced, sounds seem animalistic. Chaos reigns where order is needed. A case must be solved despite the dancing, the laughing, the exposed flesh, the drunken siren song.
Woods' engaging descriptions add a depth to this novel which distances it just a little from the original pulp fictions. Sometimes his similes do grate a little; sometimes they are cringe worthy - 'They hugged. Her breasts pressing against him seemed to have lives of their own, like naughty pink-nosed albino rabbits.' but then he throws in a real gem and I can forgive those less than perfect analogies.
'The odor of grilling meat wafted through the bead-curtained doorway of a family-run taqueria. A naked child, his tiny penis as pointed as a wasp's stinger, ran into the street. Brakes squealed. A woman screamed. The child, unhurt, began to wail at his sudden notoriety.'
For Woods, it's all about the body divided. The dead body; the dissected body; the body of evidence; the living, breathing, sensual body; the body of the novel. By segmenting the cadaver, one can learn about the person it once was - what she last ate (where and with whom), her age, her lifestyle (unshaved legs), old scars and new.
'Across the room Diaz could see the soft curves of the dead girl's body. The pale skin was tinted a deep blue in the florescent light. In two steps Diaz crossed the room and stood looking down at her. Her breasts were too abundant for the slight frame on which they hung: a thin, almost emaciated body. Tufts of gingery blond hair nestled under each arm and in the space between her legs. Her legs were unshaven. A purple bruise discoloured her neck where it had been crushed and broken.'
The body is dissected by the author, as well as by the medical examiner's knife.Woods fragments his characters, mostly female, mostly in the way a hot-bloodied male will. Diaz sees women as an amalgamation of parts that make up something of a whole, whether in bed, in the artists' studio, or on the mortuary slab. Not that surprising considering how many of them appear bra-less 'Her breasts beneath the supple fabric of her blouse were wide and flat, the shadow of the nipples visible in bas-relief.' And knickerless. And how whoops! the robe falls open to reveal a naked body 'As she leaned down her robe opened. Diaz stood and turned into her. The robe hung wide. His hand touched the warmth of her stomach, then moved upward to grope her copious breasts, the nipples as hard as small glass tesserae.' So, yes, at times it borders on titillating, and perhaps falls into the trap of stereotyping the women as sluts, the men as lascivious. But Woods, I think, is objectifying his women in the same way the artists' do their models; in the same way the medical examiner does his corpse.
'The press was all over the story like a hooker on a flaccid cock.'
Woods wends his way through all the usual suspects here but still manages to surprise as he slowly eliminates each and every carefully constructed narrative. He'll keep you guessing till the end, and even then, you'll want to keep reading.