Book Review: Demands of the Dead

Justin Podur’s novel, “Demands of the Dead”, is about an ex-police detective from New York City, Mark Brown, who is determined to avenge the murders of two close friends.  In the case of one friend, Mark Brown knows who the perpetrator was (an ex-cop like Mark) but not who ordered the hit or why. The other friend disappeared shortly after spending time in Mexico doing things that were never divulged to anyone. Mark gets a job with a private “consulting” firm based in New York that employed the killer. It does work for governments and big multinational corporations and often employs former police.

The firm sends Mark into the heart of the Zapatista turf in the Mexican state of Chiapas to investigate the killings of some Mexican police. Investigating those murders puts Mark closer to discovering what really happened to his friends.

At one point, Mark’s employer briefs him on the Zapatistas:

“On New Year’s Eve 1994, the Zapatistas took over the central city of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas. They took it and six other towns, and waited for the army to counter attack. They waited, and then retreated. They haven’t fought at all since. Instead they’ve held ‘encuentros’, big parties with hundreds of foreigners, including your Intergalactica in 1996, and marches. They wrote clever missives. They built health clinics and schools that taught the indigenous languages of the people of the state. They were just too nice for the government to kill.”

Mark Brown’s investigation in Mexico takes place sometime shortly before the PRI dictatorship (after a 71 year run) finally allowed another party to win the presidency in 2000.  Another character credibly sums up the situation:

“The rich are starting to defect to the PAN because the PRI is just costing them too much in bribes, for one thing. For a rich person, it’s probably better to pay one big bribe into the PAN’s campaign than to pay hundreds of petty bribes to every PRI official to do business every day… “

In addition to corruption so rampant that it alienated many of the elite, the character explains

“….the PRI actually kills its own members. The party presidential candidate was murdered right out in public in the middle of a crowd at a rally in 1994. They killed an informer who came out and talked about the party’s work to the media. Actually the Zapatistas once joked that they were not going to negotiate with the government until the PRI stopped killing its own members…”

Mark’s investigation in Chiapas brings him into contact with another rebel group that emerged in 1995 – the EPR. A foreign activist in Mexico tells Mark Brown the causes of hostility between the EPR and the Zapatistas (EZLN):

“One: the EPR are seeking power. Two: They don’t like the poetry. Three: The EPR isn’t indigenous. Four: the EPR did a lot of fighting and confronting the army and police…”

Anyone who has followed the shocking disappearance of 43 Mexicans students a little over a month ago, knows that significant reform has not taken place in Mexico. The political system appears as blood drenched and corrupt as ever despite heroic resistance that has been taking place for a long time.

Podur has the political insight to really do something memorable with this material. A novelist once told me that what storytellers often lack is content. Fiction writers typically fixate on technique when they have few ideas or facts to convey.  Thankfully, Podur does not attempt to dazzle with flowery descriptions. His style is unpretentious. However he gets in his own way by introducing too many characters and a great deal of extraneous detail.  He doesn’t play to his greatest strength – political knowledge and insight – which ends up being crowded out by the particulars of a conventional detective story. Cutting some characters and descriptions would have helped. If Podur had cut a about a quarter of the length from the novel it would have been much more effective –  provided, of course, that the cuts were aimed at placing the politics much more in the foreground. Nevertheless, readers may find the novel a fun way to get some basic understanding of Mexican politics.

There is one thing Ayn Rand got right in her deranged and repulsive fantasy “Atlas Shrugged”. She used the formulas of popular fiction and movies to sell her ideas but she never obscured her political priorities. [1] That kind of partisan boldness is lacking, not just in Podur’s novel, but in most popular storytelling. Recent exceptions to this provided by Left novelists are Tony Christini’s “Homefront” and “Texas MFA”, and also Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Wizard of the Crow”. However, it seems to me that Left novelists tend to either satirize the present or envision a dystopia like Orwell’s “1984”. Could we please imagine victory? It’s fiction folks. Feel free to fantasize, to do thought experiments.

Novels, movies, TV shows don’t have to be partisan and political to be fun or even enlightening, but so many are utterly forgettable because they seem to aspire to complete political irrelevance. I hope Podur writes a second novel or, perhaps better, a collection of short stories, that is much more willing to dispense what the literary and entertainment establishment says that story telling must emphasize.


[1] I should add that “Atlas Shrugged” was incredibly longwinded– written as if Rand either never received honest editorial advice or was, by that point in her career, too full of herself to listen to it.

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