Introduction to the Capra Edition of Dia De Los Muertos 2003

by Kent Harrington

© Kent Harrington 2009 All rights reserved by author 

Dear Reader,

It’s unlikely we’ll ever meet; unfortunately, that’s the way it is between the novelist and his readers. We do have a marvelous and profound connection, though, however distant. You might be reading this even a hundred years from now, but we’ll connect on these pages for a moment, and time and place won’t really matter. I like to think of all the places I’ll travel in spirit, if not in the flesh.

The novel you are holding is set in Tijuana, Mexico. I first passed through that city in the early 1960s, as a child. I was traveling by car with my mother’s Guatemalan family—an aunt and two uncles—on our way to Central America. That morning, it seemed to me a sleepy town. The Tijuana I saw as a child had come, by the 1960s, to personify (for Americans) not only a corrupt and Godless Mexico, but a corrupt Latin America. No small feat for a down-at-the-heels border town. The city’s blighted reputation was based on the fact that it was where Californians went to indulge themselves in ways they couldn’t back home, at least not legally. Both gambling and prostitution were legal enterprises in the city, and prostitution might as well be legal. (Remember, this started before Las Vegas.)

Illicit sex, I think, was the real meat of Tijuana’s mythology. The legendary sex shows were probably apocryphal. Real or not, they existed in the salivating imagination of sexually repressed American males in the pre-Playboy world. Where did the Latin Lover idea spring from? Was it that Catholics were viewed as more licentious? Why not a German lover? But for a lot of young American men in pre-World War Two California, the word was out: Sodom and Gomorrah existed, buddy, and you could drive there.

It turns out that all this weekend sin was on offer to these bright-eyed, well-scrubbed boys and girls by—lo and behold—their fellow Americans! “The Jockey Club, Tivoli Bar, the Foreign Club, the Sunset Inn and Agua Caliente Casino were all owned by Anglo-Americans and employed mostly American workers.” 1 In fact, the Yankees had arrived as early as 1885, and stayed to control the tourist industry until the Mexican government ran them out in the 1940s.

So it was not those Mexicans—the Mexicans who had treated Davy Crockett so shabbily at the Alamo, the Hollywood Mexicans who so memorably didn’t “need no stinking badges”—but Americans who created the myth of Tijuana, City of Sin. On the contrary, the Mexican government put an end to all that good old fun. I’ve heard that the Cardenas administration actually turned some American-owned casinos into schools. This transformation should have put an end to the town’s sinful reputation. When I saw it, unfortunately, the city was only resting up for a bigger show.

Tijuana finally surpassed its own colossal reputation by the 1990s, when it was arguably one of the most violent and corrupt cities on the planet. Both the country and the city had, by the Nineties, changed profoundly , and not for the better. The Mexican government formed in the Revolution of 1917, which had once been responsible for cleaning up Tijuana and building a modern, relatively prosperous Mexico, was finally undone by the illegal drugs trade. Political corruption was the order of the day, and hell was visited on Tijuana, now a border megalopolis. Like so much in our modern world, even crime had industrialized. This is the city I write about here. It’s a frightening place.

When you first cross the border from the United States into Tijuana, you’ll see a heavy, old-fashioned metal turnstile used by pedestrians to enter the city. If you ever go, you should enter that way, on foot. Someday they will turn that old-fashioned gate into something modern, something slick, that marks nothing. But I hope you see that turnstile cage. It probably dates from the 1930s or 1940s. There is something final about pushing through that gate, hearing it creak, feeling its weight, and seeing a foreign world waiting behind those gray bars. Beyond that turnstile is the fascinating, surreal, shocking welcoming committee of the city’s begging children and mean-looking taxi drivers. No computer turnstile could ever give you that moment.

I started going to Tijuana as an adult because I liked to go to the bullfights. All the big-time matadors come to Tijuana in the summer. I love the music they play at the bullfight. A small band sits way above the arena in the sun, trumpets glaring. The musicians are usually older men who look like they could use a meal. When they start to play, it’s to punctuate some drama below: perhaps the bull, confused, bloody, is standing in the shade waiting for that last assault. Or the sweating young matador, his black slippers in the gold sand, finally exposes the killing sword before he rushes towards the bull.. Something dramatic, anyway, spurs the musicians to play.

The bullring in the old downtown is the best one. (There’s a new one, by the sea.) The old ring is beautiful and intimate, and for some reason I think of it as Baroque, although it really isn’t.

I used to go alone to Tijuana in those days because most people I knew then found the place a bore, or hated the bullfights, or both. At that time I was working in Oakland, where feuding gangsters shot at me almost every day. So the idea of sudden death was very real to me. I could relate completely to the bull and to the bullfighter. Now I can’t watch the end of a bullfight, because it’s cruel and I know it’s cruel. (Is an anonymous death in some dark porcelain slaughter house any better? I know what I’d choose.)

Sometimes I’d take the girl who would become my wife. I remember her looking so sexy, with her tight white pants and her long black hair. I remember the way the fights both repelled and fascinated her. I remember her buying French perfume at the fancy shop on Avenida Revolution after the bullfights. I will always remember her surrounded by other young Mexican women at the counter, all of them so intent on the shopping and all of them looking so beautiful and perfect in the late afternoon light, which in summer hits the disheveled and raucous Tijuana streets and makes them oddly sorrowful, golden and dirty-beautiful.

Sometimes I would drive down from the Bay Area with very little money, as I was trying to become a novelist and was living hand to mouth, which sounds romantic but isn’t. I would have just enough money for a bullfight and a decent hotel (the Hotel Arizona), and gas money home, and that was it. Sometimes I went when I really shouldn’t have, as I didn’t have any money at all to spare. I’ve never regretted that. To be any kind of artist, I suppose , is to be madly myopic.

I was alone in Tijuana when I first started Dia De Los Muertos. I’d like to think that I saw Vincent Calhoun, the protagonist, in the restaurant of the Hotel Arizona, near the bullring. The Hotel Arizona had a good lunch, and served it by the pool. All kinds of people came to eat lunch  there before the bullfights: gangsters, movie people from LA, young Marines, and just ordinary day trippers like me. I’m sure I saw someone like Vincent there because that’s where the book starts for me, by the pool, with the lunch being served by waiters in starched white coats, and everyone excited and looking forward to the bullfight.

What about the novel? For me, it’s about this man Vincent Calhoun, who stands suddenly at the entrance to a very dark alley—which, if you want, we’ll call human consciousness—and, hearing the band strike up, walks on toward something both important and frightening. In this battle between his humanity and his past, he hopes to prevail. Don’t we all? I always found his story hopeful, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

My original opening for the novel—the two paragraphs below—were omitted in the first edition. The publisher of the first edtion, Dennis Mcmillan, was right and correct to do so. Thus the story starts for me now—and I hope for always—with these words: “It was Tijuana’s knack at getting back at you that worried Calhoun.” 

All the best,
Kent Harrington
April 2003
San Rafael, California

Imagine Ross Perot French kissing Roseanne Barr with a mariachi backdrop and you have the context for modern Tijuana. The slick and the profane together in an unimaginable and gruesome combination, all dressed very badly. Honky-tonks and high-rises, the miserable and the millionaires, the hustlers and the hustled as Entertainment Tonight. Mercy, decency, fair play, as the hip-hoppers say, were not in the house. It is the city of the fast buck that is reaching the speed of light—Coca-Cola and chaos. Dollar dudes and busty dudettes with bad attitudes who don’t fuck with the small change. It’s a town where razors appear quickly. Where people go by street names like Morocco Mole and Bob Wire. Where children don’t officially exist because no one filled out a birth certificate. No amount of modern cosmetic surgery by the city’s chamber of commerce can convince you to relax. This is not a modern city as much as it is something new, something truly unique and frightening, the bass line in a NWA song—a full color ad for the Twenty-first century. Tijuana is the city of a million desperate crime stories that are never told, but instead are lost, blown like Mc Donald’s wrappers into the surrounding desert.

The words tawdry, ugly and mean are pathetically old-fashioned in the face of what you see on Tijuana’s streets. The experience requires brand new English words that have yet to be coined but will certainly be cool acronyms, perhaps something like: C.R.A.W.L. Cruel reasoning animates world leaders, or P.A.I.N. People all in need.


Kent Harrington’s first published work was the well-received noir thriller Dark RideBooklist’s review said: “This is as noir as it gets.” His follow-up noir thriller Dia De Los Muertos is now considered a modern crime classic. Amazon’s editorial review says: “If ‘American noir’ were in the dictionary, you might find Kent Harrington’s picture in place of the definition.” His latest novel is Last Seen.