The Puerto Rican Mystery: Steven Torres Interviews Cina Pelayo and Richie Narvaez

Once in a while we have the privilege of bringing readers an interview on this blog. In this one, Steven Torres talks to Cina Pelayo and Richie Narvaez. Currently a resident of Connecticut, Steven Torres is a Derringer Award winning short-story writer and the author of the Precinct Puerto Rico novels. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (May/June 2021) with “The Case of the Strangled Man”—a locked-room mystery! Cynthia (Cina) Pelayo is a novelist and poet and a nominee for the International Latino Book Award, multiple Bram Stoker Awards, and an Elgin Award. Richie Narvaez is the author of the collection Roachkiller and Other Stories, which received the 2013 Spinetingler Award for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection and the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Best eBook Fiction. His debut novel, Hipster Death Rattle, appeared in 2019. —Janet Hutchings

Scottish writers like Ian Rankin and Russel McLean have staked out a territory in the mystery world that some call Tartan Noir. There’s also an Icelandic Noir. I know Puerto Rican writers who write mysteries. I’m one of them. I asked Richie Narvaez, author of Hipster Death Rattle and Cina Pelayo, author of Children of Chicago to consider whether “The Puerto Rican Mystery” is a thing. 

ST: Do you write Puerto Rican mysteries? Puerto Rican-American mysteries? Or just mysteries? Or maybe the multiple voices allowed/required lead to writing in one voice for one story and a different voice for another?

CP: I’m a Puerto Rican–born writer. I write genre-bending works that typically have some grounding in the mystery genre. My protagonist for my most recent novel, Children of Chicago, is Puerto Rican

RN: I write mysteries with Puerto Rican characters, and I am Puerto Rican, or, if I have to label myself, I am more accurately Nuyorican, that is, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. It’s an important distinction because my culture and my concerns are different than those of someone born on the island.

CP: Right. I think Puerto Ricans in Chicago are different from Puerto Ricans on the island or Puerto Ricans in New York or any other community. I have been shaped by Chicago’s history and cultural backgrounds. I was born in Puerto Rico but raised in Chicago where I still live. My identity is very much connected to being both Puerto Rican and a Chicagoan, and really a Midwesterner. 

The Puerto Rican story, or a Puerto Rican living on the mainland story, for me will always involve the cultural identity of being Puerto Rican, and of being a Chicagoan because that is what I am and that is what I enjoy writing about. 

ST: So, you have a “double identity” – Puerto Rican and Chicagoan.

CP: Ultimately, my stories are Puerto Rican stories, because I am a Puerto Rican and I am a Chicagoan, and I identify with both, and this Midwestern identity. I’m a city person and an island person and a person from the Midwestern region. 

RN: It’s also important to note that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, so when Puerto Ricans come here, they are migrants, not immigrants, although the struggles are often similar. 

ST: Do you focus on those struggles?

RN: I generally start a story with characters before plot, and so I’ll consciously make someone Puerto Rican or not. And that can add deeper meaning to the plot, an engagement with issues relevant to the community maybe, or sometimes it’s just interesting window dressing—although it’s window dressing with unavoidable subtext.

ST: Your first novel, Hipster Death Rattle, had the issue of gentrification—important to Puerto Ricans in the States and on the island.

ST: What is distinctive about the Puerto Rican mystery? How is it different from any other novel or story set in Chicago or Brooklyn?

CP: It’s complicated. I love Puerto Rican food and music, for example, but I also love a hot dog and beer at Wrigley Field or Sox Park while watching a baseball game. Puerto Rican history is also important to me, just as the history of Chicago and understanding how the histories of both locations have shaped their places and people.

RN: Let me put it this way: If I write about a Puerto Rican named Diaz in Brooklyn solving a crime, certainly that is different than if I wrote about a guy named Blonski or Jackson or Romano in Brooklyn solving a crime. Even if the mystery plot is schematically the same, the flourishes would be different. One story might feature empanadas, the other pierogis. And the subtext changes: Each character, while he might act similarly or even the same as the other, would bring different lingo, histories, perspectives, and class and skin-color issues to the story. Certainly, if I make Diaz darker skinned or a woman, that changes things. If I move Diaz to Chicago, geography and local politics add their own subtexts. I could try to make Diaz a generic character in a generic city, but his name would still resonate things that are not on the page.

ST: Do you ever write lines that you know are basically for the uninitiated? I mean, if you say “mofongo” that would seem to need a gloss, no? Not just what it is, but how it could be thought of as a delicacy or a comfort food.

RN: All the time.I don’t mind writing for the uninitiated, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story. The people who don’t understand a reference may wrinkle their brows or frown, but the tiny audience who does understand will smile widely. Listen, if T.S. Eliot can throw in French, German, Latin, and Greek, I can throw in a reference to cuchifritos and not have to explain it. Readers can Google if they really want to know. And anyway, if you give something good context, a conscious reader should be able get the idea, if not the exact meaning, of any non-English word or phrase. If I write that “cuchifritos” are delicious and greasy and crunchy and comforting, I don’t need to add a food history and a full recipe. There’s a murder mystery we have to get back to. 

CP: Speaking of comfort food, I write a lot about coffee. I’m from Adjuntas, a mountain town in Puerto Rico, and coffee and coffee production are important to that community’s history. Coffee production was impacted greatly by Hurricane Maria, and even going back, the influence of US investment—or disinvestment—in farm communities in Puerto Rico impacted coffee production. My grandfather was a coffee farmer, so you will see the mention of coffee highlighted throughout my work, not because of what we think of it as today, a drink dominated by American consumerism, but because it is a drink that is important to Puerto Rican culture and my identity. 

ST: If we were looking for another Puerto Rican author of crime/mystery, who would you recommend?

RN: I recommend Edwin Torres, who gets forgotten today. He wrote the two Carlito’s Way books and also Q&A, all of which evoke the realism and brutality of ’70s and ’80s New York City. I also always mention Jerry Rodriguez, who wrote two crime fiction novels, The Devil’s Mambo and Revenge Tango, before he passed away too young. Had he lived and continued writing, he would have found the huge audience he deserved today. I also recommend the legal thrillers with prosecutor Melanie Vargas that Michele Martinez wrote early in her career. Her new books, written as Michele Campbell, are non-series thrillers, and they’re pretty good, too.

CP:I would recommend:Angel Luis Colónauthor of Hell Chose Me; Ann Dávila Cardinal who wrote Five Midnights, and Gabino Iglesias who wrote Coyote Songs.

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4 Responses to The Puerto Rican Mystery: Steven Torres Interviews Cina Pelayo and Richie Narvaez

  1. jeffbaker307 says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve found there’s a different “vibe” to NY and Chicago from the folks I’ve met who came from there (never been myself, alas!) Steven, i loved “The Case of the Strangled Man.”

  2. Janet Hutchings says:

    As for the pizza, Chicago is the home of deep dish pizza. Yum!

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