Graydon Miller was an American expatriate in Mexico for nine years, at the start of his writing career. He was first published not in English but in Spanish, with “Un invierno en el infierno” (“A Winter in Hell”). Some of his stories have been collected in the volume The Havana Brotherhood, and he’s also the author of the thriller novel The Hostages of Veracruz. He received a Derringer nomination from the Short Mystery Fiction Society for his story “At Thirty Paces,” and he will appear in EQMM for the first time in our July/August issue, which goes on sale next week. In this post we get a glimpse of what inspired the former reporter to work in the field of crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings
They say two kinds of Americans come to live in Mexico: those who are not wanted in their homeland, and those who are. When I was a reporter in Mexico, people who made the news in the English-speaking expatriate community I covered—the scam artists, the fugitives, the quacks, murderers, and occasional socialite or visiting Nobel Prize winner thrown in—tenaciously proved the truth of this observation.
Before becoming a reporter, I’d won a political short story contest. At the time, a tennis mate whose wife worked with me in the university translation office heard about a job at an English paper in Guadalajara, where we lived. My friend Ivan knew I’d won the story contest and figured reporting was a natural job for me. The editor, another Englishman like Ivan, agreed. I went into this job reluctantly, saying to myself, “This will be cigar money.”
Working at the Guadalajara Reporter meant afternoons taken away from my fiction writing, and less tennis. My game still hasn’t recovered, but this job, undertaken strictly for cigar money, would shake up my world and redefine my fiction. The audacious crimes—especially those of the Black Widow—defied imagination and surpassed the creations of the greatest fictional minds. On the other hand, I discovered that the craved solution to the mystery, the just desserts, could only be reliably found in fiction. This period in Mexico truly turned me into a wizard of fiction, much of it steeped in the unresolved cases I reported on, by turns horrifying and entertaining.
Years later, I realize the crimes still nag at me. The first of my top three cases, which I can never shake or really finish, involved a fugitive from the U.S.
People think just because you are a murderer you are coarse and forfeit charm. Not so. Perry March reminded me of the actor who played Mozart in Amadeus, he was almost puckish, even if he did have a black belt. With Perry the elephant in the room was murder. It preceded him when the 30-something lawyer fled in the summer of 1999 from Nashville to Mexico with his children whose mother had vanished. It took him about five minutes to find a Mexican beauty to be at his side.
The first Mrs. March had an argument with Perry one night in their suburban Nashville home. A young mother and children’s-book illustrator, Janet drove off in her Volvo, Perry later said, to go on a twelve-day vacation, destination unknown.
A friend of Janet’s visited the house the next day and remembered seeing a carpet rolled up in the kitchen. Which was odd because Janet was proud of her exposed hardwood floors. Janet’s Volvo was finally found in the parking lot of a nearby apartment house. She was never found, either dead or alive.
In 2000 Janet was declared legally dead. For years, left with these facts, I believed the lawyer Perry March had committed the perfect murder. In 2004 Perry was finally accused by a Grand Jury in Nashville and extradited to the United States to face trial. Even though Janet March’s body has still never been found, in 2006 Perry was found guilty of murdering Janet. It wasn’t a karate chop, it turns out, but a wrench presumably delivered to her skull after she revealed she wanted a divorce. The trial’s lynchpin was Perry’s own father snitching on him. The elder March helped him remove her remains from a shallow grave in an empty lot near March’s Nashville home to a new place “where she would never be found.” In true Hitchcockian fashion, Perry had panicked when he learned of plans to construct on the first burial site.
The Black Widow
Socorro Rodriguez de Lapine was a perky bilingual woman who wooed any number of legionnaires living in Mexico. Her fluent English made them feel comfortable. Quite a few she married and buried. The first husband, a former serviceman named Lapine, died after a fatal fall off a ladder in 1970 and left Socorro a widow with three mouths to feed. Somewhere along the line, Socorro became adept at milking the insurance system. A surprising number of husbands and beaus died, victims of tainted tequila, burglars’ bludgeons, and sudden seizures. Nobody in the expatriate community had foul play on the radar; they were plausible deaths.
When her insurance fraud was exposed, it convulsed the American colony and jogged memories: Socorro had been a fixture in their social circle. All told, this diminutive (5′ 2″) woman is now believed to have been responsible for bringing nine people to an early grave.
Her masterpiece was to create a fictional half sister. Nobody ever remembers seeing the sister. Socorro paid off the right doctors and bureaucrats to obtain birth and death certificates, and she then took out a life-insurance policy on the sister. Also she developed a cozy relationship with a local funeral director. It takes a village to pull off a successful insurance fraud.
The half sister “died” and Socorro collected a $100,000 premium.
How could you top that? You can’t, and yet the crafty Black Widow did.
She found a new beau, Victor LaPine, a Montana rancher settled in Mexico who shared the same last name as Socorro’s first husband (this coincidence was a great conversation starter, and a fatal one). LaPine was stricken in a restaurant as the two dined and collapsed in the bathroom. His body was hastily cremated, to the dismay of his family in the U.S. Further arousing their suspicions, they learned LaPine had left a signed IOU to Socorro for a large sum of money.
Things were heating up. The insurance company started poking around into the payout for the half sister. The questions were mounting, but Socorro couldn’t answer them, for Socorro Rodriguez de Lapine died unexpectedly in 1995, leaving her children a $500,000 insurance policy.
A dogged insurance investigator persuaded the authorities to exhume the casket of Socorro. This was not common practice in the devout and superstitious country of Mexico.
When Socorro’s casket was brought into the sunlight it was found to contain rocks, dried flowers, and old newspapers. As the story broke, a seamstress living with a humble family in Puerto Vallarta moved out quietly, quickly. The seamstress was Socorro; the family’s children recognized her from the TV. She along with the doctor who had signed her death certificate vanished without a trace. The funeral director who fell into Socorro’s tangled web was found strangled just before he was due to testify to authorities.
Yes, the Hellman case . . . far less known and yet more sickening. This is not an entertaining case. And now that memories erode, the remaining facts still haunt. A vigorous retiree, Mrs. Hellman started going to a physician from the U.S. who graduated from medical school in Mexico late in life. The doctor actually did house calls and became a frequent visitor to Mrs. Hellman’s home near the shores of Lake Chapala, an area popular with American and Canadian retirees. She swore by him. The doctor eventually obtained power of attorney and turned away concerned friends who came to visit Mrs. Hellman. For her friends, concern turned into alarm as the weeks went by.
Finally bound to a bed, she was glimpsed for the last time by a friend shocked at her rapid decline. At least one person alerted the police. They came. The doctor’s smooth assurances that she was tied up for her own good sent them away satisfied. A few days later Mrs. Hellman was dead. The doctor was never formally accused of murder; the autopsy possibly provided a good alibi for tying up his patient.
Cause of death: brain aneurysm—that’s when the weakened wall of a vessel ruptures, flooding the brain with blood—provoked, in Mrs. Hellman’s case, by a fall from the bed. The doctor stopped answering his messages after I started digging. He soon booked a flight out of the country. I do not know if he was ever able to enjoy the house he inherited.
So the job I took “for cigar money” turned into something else altogether. It marked a slow, steady swerve toward crime, preferably in ink rather than blood. Crime reporting turned me into a wizard of fiction, where closure can be worked out, conjecture included, and also, room can be left for a little unresolved dissonance at the end. That’s a lasting stylistic nod to the harsh criminal reality I encountered.
Most of the murders I dealt with as a reporter in Mexico had little in the way of closure. In the worst of cases the bad guys got away with it, in the best of cases they simply got away.