A Mexican tragedy – a thriller as reportage

Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann

the book you have in front of you now – isn’t quite a nonfiction novel, and it’s most certainly not news, but it’s not quite fiction, either. In Mexico, there’s a strong tradition of the crónica, a hybrid form that owes its subjectivity to reportage, its questioning of onjectivity to autobiography, and just about everything else to fiction. Given the dangers of telling the truth in Mexico, it’s easy to understand why the form has taken such strong root here.

MacGabhann, who you won’t be surprised find out comes from Ireland, has reported from Latin America for many outlets, and for his first novel, a thriller, he’s adopted Mexico’s crónica form. It is set in the Mexican gangland underworld of Veracruz state where the police are as corrupt as the fracking oil companies and the drug cartels rule by fear. While living in Mexico City, he’s used his own reactions to the murder of four neighbours by one of the gangs to drive his novel which started out as a hurting love story between two men. Let me tell you a bit about it.

Andrew is a jaded reporter and Carlos, a photographer, is his boyfriend. They’re fed up of having to chip at the edges of Mexico’s corruption, political and corporate, the cartels and gangs, but to delve deeper would be dangerous. But on their way back to the city from covering an oil story, Carlos spots a body in an alleyway – it’s a kid, cut-up nasty, strangled, left on show. Carlos takes photos and gets a name from the student ID – then the cops turn up!

‘This is a crime scene,’ said the first cop.
My skin wasn’t skin any more: just a hot prickling shiver all over.
‘We thought he was alive,’ I said.
A wad of shit pressed hot against my asshole.
‘Until we got close,’ I said.
The cop didn’t say anything, just gave Carlos a chin-jut.
‘You took pictures?’ he said.
‘Was about to,’ said Carlos. Sorry.
The first cop smashed Carlos across the jaw with the stock of his pistol and said, ‘You stupid bastard. You’ll get us all killed.’

Andrew’s press pass gets them out of the situation. The cops were scared too – and fling the body into the back of their pickup – to disappear it, Carlos surmises. They continue their journey home, but when they stop for a drink, Carlos decides to hitch a lift back to Poza Rica, to find out more about what’s going on down there. Andrew returns home alone, where he finds his friend Maya who’d been cat-sitting while he was away. Maya doesn’t like cats! Carlos isn’t answering his phone, and Andrew falls asleep – waking early the next morning to warning texts telling him he wasn’t safe.

When he gets to Carlos’s apartment, there’s an ambulance outside, now loaded and ready to go. A cop with silver teeth is getting in the way of the crime scene team, when they realise he’s from Veracruz and shouldn’t be there, he leaves. Andrew tries to pump the technician for information – the body had been shot with police issue bullets and strangled. It was Carlos. Andrew is numbed with grief, and knows his biggest story will be to avenge Carlos’s death, to discover why the other young man’s body got Carlos murdered and publish it.

I wasn’t expecting Carlos to die so early in the novel (by page 40) – it’s a brave author that kills off a major character so early on. This means that Andrew spends the novel either semi-comatose with grief (and acid) or with his journalist hat on impassively winkling out the truth. Andrew and Carlos may be chalk and cheese, but their relationship is portrayed as a tender one, even if Andrew can’t shed a tear at Carlos’s funeral. Maya, a student journalist, is a good friend to Andrew in his time of need, which of course puts her in danger too – she’s a great sidekick.

The violence in Call Him Mine makes Mexico sound an extremely dangerous place, especially for anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The drugs cartels whose fingers stretch into many other pies, such as Los Zetas are known for their ultraviolent ways. Yes, this is a thriller, written in a semi-reportage style, but look Los Zetas up on wikipedia, and your blood will run cold as you scan down the page. No wonder Mexican authors use the crónica style to blur facts enough so they’re not put in danger themselves. MacGabhann’s afterword gives us more of a flavour of the real levels of corruption and cartels in contemporary Mexico too.

This was such an interesting thriller, necessarily gritty in its fictional exposition of what the cartels really do. Andrew’s narration really does feel like reportage a lot of the time, but this is at the expense of developing his character – a limitation of the form – but what he sees through his reporter’s eyes is vividly brought to life. MacGabhann’s first novel is thus a curious thing, but I rather enjoyed it. (8/10)

Source: Review copy. Tim MacGabhann, Call Him Mine (W&N, June 2019), hardback, 272 pages.

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11 thoughts on “A Mexican tragedy – a thriller as reportage

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s definitely an exciting way of fictionalising reportage. Although Call Him Mine is a novel, it has its roots in reportage and thus was rather different.

  1. A Life in Books says:

    What an interesting approach to the subject, and such a great cover. I can see why MacGabhann would want to write it as fiction Adding this one to my list.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Mystica. In this case, the violence was sadly necessary to present the facts in this novel.

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