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Mysteries Set in South America
A library program on travel in Patagonia, with guidebook writer Wayne Bernhardson, set me off on a search for mysteries set in South America. I’ve put in two examples of literary fiction and one non-fiction book, too. Check these out from your San Mateo County Library:
The Lady from Buenos Aires: A Willie Cuesta Mystery, by John Lantigua
Detective Willie Cuesta is asked by a beautiful Argentine woman to find her missing niece. It turns out that her sister was among the disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship, and despite the lack of evidence the lady believes that her sister had a daughter, now in her twenties. This is a book by a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, set in Miami and Argentina.
Stealing Mona Lisa: A Mystery, by Carson Morton
An American millionaire in Buenos Aires meets a swindler who promises to steal great works of art for his wealthy clients, and put forgeries on the walls of the museums they came from, instead. Actually, he steals nothing and sells the forgeries to his clients. But the American millionaire demands proof of the theft of the Mona Lisa for him, and a series of disasters ensues. Based on the real theft of the Mona Lisa in Paris, in 1911.
Deadly Shoals, by Joan Druett
Here’s another historical mystery, this one set in 1838 on the coast of Patagonia. The detective is a half-Maori translator for an American sailing expedition of explorers. The client is the captain of a whaler, whose money and schooner have been stolen. Deadly Shoals is full of colorful characters and a wealth of period detail.
The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander
While this is a novel, not a mystery, I’ve included it because a mystery is central to the story, which is about the disappearance of a Jewish teenager during Argentina’s Dirty War. His parents wind up at the “Ministry of Special Cases,” a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where they will never be told the truth. His mother won’t give up hope, while his father soon accepts the worst. But even the worst is not as bad as it gets. Englander writes with artistry and dark humor about a tragedy both personal and political.
A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Novel, by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther is a German PI who has fled to Argentina after the end of WWII. Hoping for an end to hostilities, Gunther is instead swept up in events in Peron’s Argentina, when a local inspector gets him to help solve the murders of a girl and a young woman. One of the cases seems connected to a case Gunther had back in Weimar Germany. Fine descriptions of both 1932 Berlin and 1950 Buenos Aires.
Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen
Like Nathan Englander’s book, Galchen’s novel is not really a mystery, but there’s a mystery at the heart of it. Psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein believes his beloved wife has disappeared and been replaced by an imposter. His patient Harvey, who believes he can control the weather, is missing, too. Leo’s search for his wife takes him to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, puts him in touch with meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen, and makes the reader wonder where reality begins and ends.
Blood of the Wicked and Every Bitter Thing, by Leighton Gage
Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva stars in these books, both political thrillers and crime novels that give the reader an insight into the workings of the vast country of Brazil. In the first, the assassination of a Catholic bishop draws Silva into a struggle between wealthy landowners and landless peasants. In the second, a serial killer targets people who were passengers on a certain airline flight. Warning: very graphic scenes of violence.
Heart of the World, by Linda Barneshttp
Boston PI Carlotta Carlyle searches for a missing teenage girl who is her “little sister” in a mentoring program. The search takes Carlyle all the way to Miami and Colombia, where young Paolina may have gone to try to see her estranged father, a Colombian drug kingpin.
City of Silver: A Mystery, by Annamaria Alfieri
A history mystery set in 1560 in Potosí, Peru (now in Bolivia). The King of Spain has sent a grand inquisitor to find out why Potosí is minting impure silver coins. Meanwhile, the mayor’s daughter has died in a convent, and the abbess is in serious trouble, accused of heresy. Booklist Reviews says it is “sure to attract fans who have wearied of murder in Elizabethan England.”
Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, edited by Richard L Burger and Lucy C Salazar
This, of course, is not fiction, but it’s a mystery nonetheless. A perfect read for the centennial of Hiram Bingham’s 1911 “discovery” of the famous Inca ruins, with essays written to accompany a traveling exhibition of artifacts from Yale. Great for archaeology buffs.
Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile. She traveled to Ecuador in 1966 and to Argentina in 2009.