We gave it a C+
No one has won the Nobel prize for literature writing murder mysteries, and it’s a safe bet that no one will. Too bad, because few more reliable indicators of a nation’s personal and political freedoms exist than the quality of its detective novels. In countries where the secret police hold sway, even the darkest tales of Raymond Chandler or Ruth Rendell must read like utopian fantasies of a just and orderly world. At least that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Francisco Goldman’s awkwardly titled but ambitious first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, the densely convoluted story of an unsolved homicide in the Central American nation of Guatemala. ”Here in Guatemala,” one character observes, ”there is a fundamental respect for freedom of expression. Here, anyone is free to say whatever he wants. And if someone doesn’t like it, then he’s free to kill you.”
And, it follows, there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do about it. Assuming that the murder of Flor de Mayo Puac came at the hands of the military regime’s death squads — a distinct possibility — seeking her killer would be not only futile, but potentially suicidal. Even the novel’s narrator, her adoptive brother Roger Graetz, a Guatemalan-American who flies down from Boston to bring the body home, knows that much. As does his boyhood friend — and Flor’s former lover — the enigmatic Moya, a brilliant journalist skilled in the complex game of survival in a world where government informers, nicknamed orejas (ears), lurk everywhere.
Despite his cynicism about things Guatemalan, Roger at first believes the press’ accusations about the dead woman. The authorized version is that Flor was slain by criminal associates. According to the newspapers, the orphanage she ran was actually a place where children were sold to the highest bidder. Not until Moya comes to see him over a year later in New York to air his own suspicions does Roger return to Guatemala to satisfy his curiosity and put Flor’s memory to rest.
Unfortunately, the baby-selling story is so clearly implausible that most readers are apt to lose faith in Roger for initially believing it. Loving Flor as he does, it simply defies credibility that he could entertain such a notion — and the more fully he evokes their childhood years in Massachusetts the more improbable it seems. His extravagant self-pity also detracts from the novel’s impact. ”Origins such as mine — Catholic, Jewish, Guatemala, USA — can’t always exist comfortably inside just one person,” Roger complains. ”You’ve been born into a kind of labyrinth and there’s no getting back to the beginning because there isn’t any one true point of origin.”
But a labyrinth, alas, describes the plot as well. Goldman, a Guatemalan-American who is a contributing editor of Harper‘s with some first-rate reporting from Central America to his credit, beautifully evokes the spiritual torpor of a people ”justifiably saturated with paranoia…resolutely silent, suspicious, dishonest, full of denial, quick to believe the worst of anyone.” Too fearful to do much more in the way of investigating Flor’s death than to sit in coffee shops and bars collecting rumors, Roger makes a list of possible motives and suspects that increases all the time — as does his confusion and moral paralysis. By the time readers realize that the whole point of The Long Night of White Chickens is that the mystery isn’t going to be solved, most will be too enervated to care. C+