Reviews > Published on November 28th, 2013

Bookshots: "The Mongolian Conspiracy" by Rafael Bernal

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Mongolian Conspiracy

Who Wrote It?

A very well-told story of what happens when there is too much cloak for the dagger to see what it’s stabbing.

Rafael Bernal (1915-1972), a well-known writer of Mexican detective novels. The Mongolian Conspiracy is regarded as his masterpiece. It was translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver, co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.

Plot in a Box:

The President of the United States is coming to meet with the President of Mexico. Soviet intelligence has just passed along a rumor from Outer Mongolia about a Maoist plot to assassinate one or both presidents. Determined to leave no stone unturned, the Mexican government enlists Garcia, a “private contractor” with “contacts” in the Chinatown underworld to investigate the conspiracy. Against Garcia’s objections, he also has to let an FBI consultant and a Russian agent “assist” with his investigation. They have three days to unravel the conspiracy before both presidents arrive in the crosshairs.

Invent a New Title For This Book:

The Mexican Corruption

Read This If You Like:

Chandleresque hardboiled fiction, Roberto Bolano (The Savage Detectives, 2666)

Meet the Book’s Lead:

Filiberto Garcia, an aging hitman turned government killer, a self-described “stiff factory” who doesn’t like jokes.

Said Lead Would be Portrayed in a Movie By:

Danny Trejo, the world’s preeminent professional portrayer of dangerous, taciturn Mexicans.

Setting: Would You Want to Live There?

1970s Mexico City is painted in vivid, vibrant color, but as Garcia learns more about the inner workings of his government it becomes clear it is not the sort of place you would live if you had any sort of choice.

What Was Your Favorite Sentence?

Fucking stiffs! You don’t only have to make them, you’ve also got to carry them, as if they were children.

The Verdict:

Two stylistic nitpicks:

1. There are way too many exclamation points scattered throughout the narration.
2. The narration randomly shifts between third and first person perspective, even in the middle of a paragraph, which leads to frequent confusion over who exactly the pronoun “he” is referring to. The third person perspective seems pointless, since it never reveals anything that Garcia does not know or see for himself.

Those aside, it is still a very well-told story of what happens when there is too much cloak for the dagger to see what it’s stabbing. One scene in which the three agents sit around discussing tools and methods of covert murder as casually as mechanics debating which engine makes a car go fastest is a masterpiece of subtle, understated nihilism. And it all takes place in a fascinating setting I’ve never read much about. Now I want more Mexican noir. There’s an old aphorism in mystery writing that in order to solve a crime, you have to solve the entire society in which it occurred. The Mongolian Conspiracy is a perfect example of this. The more Garcia investigates the foreign threat, the more he unravels the corruption at home. A worthwhile read, and one that introduced me to a new author whose other works I look forward to discovering.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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