When I started writing my novel, The Storyteller’s Death, I didn’t plan on putting a murder mystery at its heart. In fact, if you had asked me when I’d first started in this craft if I’d ever write a murder mystery, I would have said, “Oh HELL no! They’re too hard. So much to keep track of and you have to mete out all the clues…” Instead, this book started with a comment I made during a conversation with some writer friends many years ago. We were talking about how cultures treat their elderly, and I was talking about Puerto Rico:
“There was always an old woman dying in the back room of my childhood.”
From there I dove into treasure trove of stories from my Puerto Rican family and blended them with my own experiences being raised in a mixed-culture household in the nineteen sixties and seventies. I wanted to capture the lushness of my family’s property in Bayamón, the thousand shades of green, the scent of night blooming jasmine, and the taste of ripe bananas grown in the backyard. Unexpectedly, what came with the descriptive language was a whiff of magical realism. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was raised with novels from my mother’s bookshelves that I read again and again. So, it was a natural addition, this magical thread, because it has always seemed to me that when I’m on my mother’s island, a tiny crackle of magic rides on the heavy afternoon air. But much of the novel is fiction, and it was in the telling of one particular story, the death of my great-grandfather, that a murder mystery narrative arose.
My whole life I was told that my great-grandfather shot himself in a room in my great aunt’s house, the room next to where I slept each summer. It used to terrify me, to think of that violent death on the other side of the wall. When I asked why he shot himself, my mother told me that he had tuberculosis and didn’t want to burden the family. After her death, I told her brother Jorge this and he laughed. “That’s bullshit. He died in a hospital.” I was pissed, felt lied to by my mother. After Jorge’s death, however, I recounted this to their half-brother Esteban who said, “No, he did shoot himself, and I know he was sick, I saw the hospital reports. They didn’t tell Jorge because he was too young to understand. Your mother was older.”
This whipflash of accounts frustrated me at first, I mean, he could have been murdered for all I knew! But it also made me realize that at the heart of most family stories is mystery. One sibling tells a story of a particular incident, and another remembers it very differently or denies it happens at all. So, I took this story and imagined a variation of the shooting for the center of the novel—bringing in issues of classism and racism—and set the main character, Isla, on a quest to discover the truth. It wasn’t until the writing of this essay that I realized I had, in fact, written a murder mystery.
It got me thinking about other magical realist novels that have murder mysteries at their centers. And the list of books is so incredible, I wanted to share it with you.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
I swear I could smell the orange blossoms and honey of the hacienda as I read this novel set in a tumultuous time in Mexico’s history. The story is of a remarkable and magical boy found among bees and the family that adopts him, a murder (of whom? Oh no, no spoilers here!) that is not central to the novel, but you sense it coming from early on. This work, translated from the Spanish, is a lush story told in the unhurried pace that marks the finest of magical realist tomes.
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
In this stunning adult debut from Zoraida Cordova, readers are drawn into the world of the Montoya family. A sweeping family saga full of family intrigue, magical gifts, and an unknown murderer who is killing a generation one by one, this book is one you will be unable to put down until it’s finished. Gorgeous language, fabulous and flawed characters, generational trauma, and a tree full of secrets are at the core of this gorgeous story.
Hades, Argentina by Daniel Loedel
Oh, this is such a powerful novel about the mass murder of thirty thousand people in Argentina’s Dirty War. It makes literal the hell that the family of the desaparecidos, the disappeared ones, had to live through. The protagonist travels to Hades, led by ghosts, to face the truth of the Argentina he fled. This novel is only made more powerful in that the author’s half-sister was one of the disappeared and he only interred her remains in 2019. A difficult novel to read with its descriptions of torture, but so very important as it shows a dark time in history from which we can no longer afford to shy away.
Valley of Shadows by Rudy Ruiz
This novel, just released in September, is next on my TBR (to be read) pile. Solitario Cisneros thought his life was over long ago. He lost his wife, his family, even his country in the late 1870s when the Rio Grande shifted course, stranding the Mexican town of Olvido on the Texas side of the border. He’d made his brooding peace with retiring his gun and badge, hiding out on his ranch, and communing with horses and ghosts. But when a gruesome string of murders and kidnappings ravages the town, he feels reluctantly compelled to confront both life, and the much more likely possibility of death, yet again.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
What list of magical realism could ever be complete without Márquez? So, I am including this masterpiece from the Nobel Prize winning father of Latin American magical realism. Most have read A Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, but this gem is not talked about as often. A novel about the foretold murder of Santiago Nasar by the Vicario twins, it looks at the titular murder through the lens of the community, examines how the responsibility for the predestined murder did not only lie with the murderers, but also with the townspeople and the fallacy of “honor.”
So… I wasn’t the first to put a murder mystery inside a magical realist novel. Not by a long shot. And in compiling this list I only focusing on Latine magical realism. Let me know if you have any suggestions for additions.
I hope you’ll dive into one, or all, of these works and enjoy the gorgeous language, lush settings, while you try to untangle the magic webs woven by their authors.