In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
Recently, one of my colleagues did a program at LAPL about mystery novels from South and Latin America. I picked up a few books, but the one that Jim put into my hands personally was In Praise of Lies, a story of romantic intrigue, criminal schemes, and spousal homicide that's every bit as nasty as it is funny.
The narrator, Jose Guber, is a novelist who churns out pulp crime novels on two week deadlines. In an effort to sneak a little bit of intellectual betterment into his unsuspecting readers, Guber lifts his plots from the likes of Poe, Camus, and Dostoevsky. One of my favorite pieces of business in the book is the correspondence between Guber and his editor. In one of these exchanges, Guber sends a proposal that's basically Crime and Punishment, and the editor replies, "How are we going to arouse the spirit of revenge in readers by killing some mangy, undesirable old woman? When an old woman like that dies, people cheer."
The editor is also fond of invoking Van Dine's "20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories".
But enough about the nice touches - let's get to the murder.
Guber decides that he'd like to write a novel in which the murderer uses snake venom to kill his victims, and seeks out an expert for help. Enter Melissa, a herpetologist with a carefully selected collection of rare, deadly, and in some cases, illegally obtained snakes. She and Guber begin a steamy affair almost immediately, complicated by Melissa's marriage.
She hates her husband, wants him dead, and pressures Guber to help murder him so they can be together. She hatches an elaborate plan inspired by Guber's snake venom story, and Guber goes along with her, half-transfixed and half-terrified. Hasn't Guber read enough James M. Cain to realize these things never turn out well?
And it doesn't, though not in the ways you'd expect.
Melo's writing is clever and sharp, and while she relies on well-worn tropes from classic crime fiction, she bends these conventions to her own very surprising ends. In Praise of Lies is a quick read, less than 200 pages, but you'll savor every one of them.