Monday, March 14, 2011

Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism meet in VIPER

When Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz walked onto the stage of my first mystery, BLEEDER, wearing those red heels and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own. In fact, when she played a much larger role in BLEEDER than I’d anticipated, I began to feel that the sequel should feature her as the protagonist.
Then, when I learned about the Catholic custom of placing a “Book of the Dead” in the church sanctuary on All Souls’ Day to commemorate the parish’s dearly departed, I knew for certain the next book would be Selena’s story. She’d have such a Book in her parish, I thought, and even if she wasn’t exactly a consistently practicing Catholic, she’d know the custom. And what if her name was in it?
I quickly discovered that Mexicans celebrate a holiday nearly concurrent with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, called “The Day of the Dead” (El Dia de los Muertos). It is a family fiesta where women bake special breads and weave flower garlands to decorate a family altar meant to remember and respect dead relatives, who are believed to return in spirit for a visit and enjoy their favorite foods and drinks once again. Families decorate the house with colorfully dressed skeleton figures, give candy skulls to children, and have picnics in cemeteries where they call out playful insults to a female ‘grim reaper’ figure (similar to the old Aztec goddess of death) known as “Lady Death” – “Hey, you old baldy, you missed me this year!” It’s all light-hearted and it reflects a subtle blending of Aztec rituals, Catholic beliefs and folk superstitions. Many Mexican-Americans, seeking to acculturate to America and yet affirm their national tradiciones, are at ease with attending Mass and maintaining the home altar, as Selena does.
Having decided that the “Book of the Dead” had Selena’s name in it, I imagined that her name appeared last in a longer list of 8 or 9 names of men, and that the men listed before her were drug dealers she’d known in her former DEA career, who were being systematically killed in order, presumably by a dangerous drug lord called “The Snake” who Selena had helped imprison years ago but was now out, and seeking revenge on his enemies and competition. It was important that the villain be called “La Serpiente” for a few reasons related to the religious themes of the story.
First, I decided that the killer would be a devotee of Aztec deities and would be motivated, in part, by a desire to appease certain goddesses in particular by human sacrifices – cleaning up the community of drug dealer ‘vermin’ at the same time. My research into serial killers suggested that these were legit (and stronger) motives, beyond the simple ‘revenge’ idea. Because of their regenerative skin-shedding powers, snakes were important in Aztec religion, with several snake deities (The Feathered Serpent, for example) and others like the ‘mother of gods,’ Coatlicue, who is depicted wearing a skirt of rattlers. I decided the killer would be a snake-keeper (since they were sacred and regarded as ‘children’ of the deities) and one of the motives would be restoring ‘proper’ reverence for Aztec gods and goddesses among Mexicans, who – as my killer believed – had been misled by the Spanish conquerors into accepting a fake substitute, The Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of Guadalupe”, whose star-spangled blue mantle is remarkably similar to an Aztec goddess of life and death named Xochiquetzal (many Mexican girls are still named “Xochi”).
Picking up on this idea, I included a girl visionary in the story who would claim to be visited by a mysterious “Blue Lady” announcing the next killing. While some in the Mexican community would believe it is “Lady Death” and others believe it is perhaps Xochiquetzal or another Aztec goddess of death, the girl would describe the apparition exactly as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, looking like a pregnant Aztec princess, a form recognizable to all Mexicans since She is the Patroness of Mexico.  Her miraculous image, imprinted on Juan’s tilma (cape), is still preserved in the glorious Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It is hardly a coincidence that She is named “Guadalupe,” for it derives from an Aztec phrase, coatl-lupe, meaning ‘She who crushes the snake.” This can be understood in a couple of ways: First, Her appearance prompted the conversion of the Aztecs by the millions, whereby they abandoned their practice of human sacrifice (which took tens of thousands of lives per year, including children). In this symbolic way, then, Mary ‘crushed’ the Aztec “snake" deities who were appeased by the slaughtering. Secondly, it points to a passage in Genesis chapter 3, where in Eden – after the ‘fall’ – God tells Eve that the snake, now on its belly, will snap at women’s heels but a woman shall crush its head. This is why many statues and paintings of Mary show Her with a foot on a snake, since She is the “New Eve” who brings the Savior into the world, thus defeating the devil, ‘that old serpent.’ Third, it prefigures the confrontation of my protagonist with the killer’s most dangerous snake, the Barba, known to Mexicans as – what else – El Diablo, The Devil.
VIPER is an action-packed thriller that moves at a fast pace, richly informed by Aztec culture and Mexican Catholic customs. It’s all meant to be in the background, part of making Selena completely authentic as a character coming to terms with her bi-cultural identity, and showingrespeto for her community and her heritage.

Amazon links – USA paper, Kindle, and UK paper, Kindle:

The Joys of Historical Research

My new book, a historical mystery set in Prohibition era central Illinois, is taking me in many new directions. Since my protagonist, Dr. Earl Snyder Junker, is a physician, I need to know about medical practice in the 1920s. Could my character be a medical examiner as well as a family doctor? What kinds of diseases would he encounter, and what could he offer as treatments before antibiotics?

Fortunately, I have a physician husband (a retired pathologist) who can steer me to the right sort of medical information. Even better, I just signed up for an online course of the history of forensics with Dr. D. P. Lyle, a physician/author who frequently teaches mystery writers:

Dr. D.P. Lyle

Dr. Junker is also an amateur archaeologist during a time when it was still okay for private individuals to dig up burial mounds, before archaeology became an academic discipline. Early arrowhead hunters in Illinois sometimes operated like cowboys, laying claim to sites illegally and shooting at anyone who tried to stop them. Here I have plenty of help from Illinois archaeologists who know the colorful characters and history of digging in the Midwest.

Junker’s wife, Martha, is a German immigrant, so that means investigating anti-immigrant feelings that were rampant between the World Wars. And their nineteen-year-old daughter, Anna, is a nursing student by day and a fun-loving flapper by night. The 1920s was an exciting time for women who had just gained the right to vote and were breaking social taboos left and right: they drank booze and smoked cigarettes in public, wore revealing dresses and short skirts and bobbed their hair short.

But the most fascinating subject is Prohibition and the myriad ways for ordinary people to make and transport illegal liquor. The literature on this subject is vast and often available on the Internet. Two of my favorite discoveries so far: my hometown of Champaign, Illinois, had an underground passage between two major streets so speakeasy patrons could escape excise agents, and there’s a wonderful article on Prohibition in Cincinnati online