~~Moved from GR~~
The Vagabond Virgins
by Ken Kuhlken
Alvaro Hickey isn't a private detective, but he does have a small office where he acts as a law clerk and daydreams in hardboiled and noir. One day, a beautiful and mysterious woman, Lourdes Schuler, steps right out of an Ellery Queen magazine and onto his doorstep. She wants his help to find her sister (conveniently named "Lupe"), who has been missing ten years. Lourdes claims that Lupe has suddenly turned up in order, apparently, to murder their ex-Nazi father and concomitantly go on a tour of Mexico while impersonating the Virgin of Guadalupe and stirring up political discontent against the corrupt reigning party. Lourdes, who ran away from the murder investigation after stealing over a dozen gold bars from her father's vault, is now on the run from the police, her father's personal retainers, and anyone who mistakes her for her politico sister.
Just in case it escaped your notice, the plot is...well...slightly improbable. Make sure to fully defenestrate your disbelief before starting this one. Once I had fully stamped on my faculties for incredulity, I found the story reasonably enjoyable. I didn't warm much to any of the characters, but I also did not find Alvaro particularly grating. What I most enjoyed about the novel was the little tastes of Mexican and Indio-Mexican culture that so liberally decorate the story. The plot is cute, if a little obvious, and overall it is a reasonably fun read.
My major issues with it were twofold. First, every woman in the story fully deserves a slap in the face. Every single one is ridiculously egocentric, demanding, emotional, illogical, vituperative, hysterical, and dumber than a bag of bricks. I had no patience with any of them, and found it rather offputting to have all women in the story characterized that way. I'm apparently not the only one; one of Alvaro's friends is up for having shot his wife and the man she was having an affair with...according to the protagonist/narrator, she was distant and mean to him and therefore the murder was apparently justified. The men basically wander around attempting to get the women out of the messes that they create and bending backwards to obey their absurd stipulations. One of the more interesting aspects of this, for me at least, was how important I found character name references to be. Throughout the entire novel, Lourdes is referred to as "the lady". Not only is that confusing, given that Our Lady of Guadalupe is obviously involved, but it is also surprisingly successful at completely dehumanizing Lourdes' character. I was actually quite impressed at how denying someone a name can completely strip away their appearance of humanity. Unfortunately, that didn't exactly help to bring to life an already rather poorly drawn character.
The other major problem I had was with the plot. According to the story, Mexico's entire governmental is held in thrall and corrupted by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and because they control every system and can choke off any dissenters, there is practically no hope for change. Morality is very white and black in the story, with the PRI as the blackest of black. Lupe wants to help, so she begins impersonating the Virgin of Guadalupe, going around to villages and using religion to stir up dissent against the PRI. She doesn't come as a mortal woman calling for moral change; instead, she uses various technology to trick them into thinking that she is divine. All of the characters (and the narration) see this as a noble act. So...let me get this straight.
She plays on the credulity, superstition, and faith of her countrymen...
to manipulate them into taking down the political party that she sees as corrupt and manipulative...
wait a second...
**********moral/logic engine has crashed. Rebooting.**********
Seriously, I just can't wrap my head around this, or how anyone could actually perceive this as okay. To me, this spoke of overweening arrogance equivalent to the PRI. After all, the PRI are using corrupt methods to manipulate people into doing what they consider (at least outwardly) to be morally just. How is playing on religious beliefs to trick people into a different course that you believe morally right any different? Doesn't it indicate that she looks down upon them and sees them as tools to be manipulated? It reminded me rather a lot of the arrogant, educated, upper-class student Enjolras of Les Miserables, who is thrilled when one of the foremost speakers for the people dies because he can use this to manipulate the people into rising for his cause. It all reminds me strongly of that beautiful quote from Terry Pratchett's Night Watch:
"And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people. As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up."
There seems to be a new trend to use mysteries to embed a deep political message, and that's fine; in fact, it is laudable. But it would behove writers to actually consider exactly what the actions of their characters end up saying, and just how hypocritical the point of view they propound ends up being.
Overall, I think if you take this story lightly, and treat the political message, morality, and characters' actions to be as fantastic as the overall plot, it is an entertaining tale.