As I wrote a few years ago, Argentina is a country that lends itself to noir, but it’s been more effective on the screen than on the printed page. A handful of Argentine authors have managed to convey the dark side of life in Buenos Aires but foreigners, including most recently the North American Stuart Archer Cohen, have had a more difficult time of it.
Cohen’s novel 17 Stone Angels starts with a promising premise, at least from a noir point of view: a corrupt policeman draws the assignment of investigating a murder that he himself committed. The victim is a former US banker who’s now a novelist but has fallen on hard times and returns to Buenos Aires with the idea of producing a potboiler that will sell well enough to let him devote himself to serious literature (it’s hard to avoid speculating that the novel is at least partially autobiographical). The setting is, apparently, the anything-goes years of the 1990s, when the privatization of state enterprises created new opportunities for crony-capitalism corruption (originally published in 2004, in Britain, the novel has just now appeared in the US).
Despite political retrenchment since then, things have not changed that much. The protagonist of Cohen’s novel is one Comisario Miguel Fortunato, a crooked but curiously well-meaning member of the Buenos Aires province police, widely acknowledged as the country’s dirtiest force (Argentina’s capital city falls under the jurisdiction of federal police and its own metropolitan cops as well). A recent article in the English-language Buenos Aires Herald began with the following lede: “Forced disappearances are usually talked about in relation to the 1976-1983 dictatorship. But people have also disappeared during democracy. And several of the best-known cases have one thing in common: the Buenos Aires provincial police.”
In the novel, Fortunato walks a thin line while hosting a naïve US investigator whom he treats like the daughter he never had (his own wife has recently died), and his colleagues don’t help much. The problem is that a convoluted plot becomes even more opaque when much of the prose itself appears, oddly, to have been awkwardly translated from the Spanish. While the focus on Buenos Aires province makes sense, there are also geographical errors, and some of Cohen’s characters are too closely drawn on current events (crusading journalist Ricardo Berenski is obviously modeled on Horacio Verbitsky).
While I liked this novel's premise I was, at the end, disappointed with its execution (so to speak). Instead, I’m looking forward to my own departure for Buenos Aires next weekend, hoping to stay out of the way of the Bonaerense.