Sunday, June 16, 2024

These expat authors put their love affair with Mexico into their mystery novels

Obviously, I am a fan of nonfiction writing, especially about Mexico, but sometimes it is more fun, and more insightful, to read something fictional set in our adopted home.

There is no lack of talent among the many foreigners who live here and find Mexico to be an inspiration. But two have caught my attention because both draw heavily from their many years in the country, are rather prolific and are both are known for writing mysteries/whodunnits.

Jinx Schwartz’s work focuses on protagonist Hetta Coffey, a “sassy Texan with a snazzy yacht, and she’s not afraid to use it!”

Unsurprisingly, Hetta’s life draws from Schwartz’s own. Born and raised in Texas, she says she has a “natural affinity” for Mexico.

Her nomadic life brought her to San Francisco, where she met and married a naval officer. The newlyweds took his boat from there to Baja California, and when they rounded Los Cabos into the Gulf of California, they fell in love with the sea and its desert coasts. In the end, the Schwartzes spent the most of 30 years on a boat in that area, only leaving to escape hurricane season.

Author Jinx Schwartz
Author Jinx Schwartz and husband on their boat in the Gulf of California. Jinx Schwartz

But the “cruiser” life meant needing an alternative occupation to engineering, which she found in writing. Her first work was a family history, followed by a historical novel called The Mexicans and another based on her childhood experiences in Haiti.

Her husband convinced her to write a “shoot-em-up” (his words), using the Gulf of California as a backdrop. She agreed to do it if he would help with his knowledge of firearms and fighting. It wasn’t the most successful of collaborations, she admits, but it was her transition into the Hetta Coffey series, of which No. 14 is in the works.

Schwartz draws heavily from her real-life experience as a foreigner living and exploring Mexico through the couple’s boat. Such experiences can be quite dramatic, such as being buzzed by a military or police helicopter, an incident that really happened in the middle of the Gulf and made it into one of the books.

To this day, she does not know who really hovered over their boat in the middle of the night.

But they also include extensive research into issues that Schwartz calls “thorns in Mexico’s side,” generally inspired by news headlines that she delves into to get ideas for the crime behind the mystery.

With the exception of the Haiti-based one, all of Schwartz’s books focus on Mexico in some way, especially the boating lifestyle she knows so well. In fact, she says, her books have inspired more than a few people to buy their own boats and explore the Gulf of California in a similar fashion.

San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
Scherber moved to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, years ago and began putting the picturesque city in his books. Choupi33/Shutterstock

Schwartz continues the Coffey series as she always has, even though life has steered her into dividing her time between the United States and Mexico. The main reason for this was the loss of her husband a few years ago and the decision to sell the boat afterward.

Older now, she decided to make her base on the Texas coast, but still spends a good part of the year in Mexico through her connections with the foreign community in northwest Mexico. She admits to missing the boating lifestyle, although concerns about her age and health are more important now.

John Scherber’s main protagonist for his Murder in Mexico series is named Paul Zacher. All the stories are based in the mountain city of San Miguel de Allende.

Scherber’s Mexican inspiration began before he even got here.

He grew up in Minneapolis and discovered a talent for writing in high school. In 1964, he went to San Francisco to begin a writing career, but after writing two books that he says “were not very good,” he all but quit at age 25.

Despite several attempts to get back on track, he would not write seriously again until he was 62.

Author John Scherber
All of author John Scherber’s 31 books in his Murder in Mexico series of mystery novels have been set in San Miguel de Allende Guanajuato. John Scherber

The road back to writing began in New Mexico in 2005, where he was living with his wife and family. One day, while driving to Taos, he imagined a conversation between a model and a painter. He liked it and wrote it down.

That conversion would be the center of the first Zacher novel.

Scherber was not living in Mexico, but he and his family were traveling extensively in it. From the beginning of his Murder in Mexico series — Twenty Centavos — the books have been set in San Miguel de Allende.

Like Schwartz, more than a little of his personal life winds up in his novels. One difference is that instead of projecting himself into one character, he is found in various, especially the three that are the focus: Paul Zacher the painter, his girlfriend Maya Sanchez and retired homicide detective Cody Williams. Each has a role to play, even if not always harmoniously.

Already into the third of the series, Scherber moved to San Miguel de Allende permanently in 2007. Unlike Schwartz, Scherber does not depend on headlines for the creation of his mysteries, actually finding issues such as the drug trade too difficult to weave into his writing.

Instead, Mexico influences his stories through the relationships he has with many average Mexicans, and through hearing stories about their normal lives.

Books by John Scherber
Scherber has written both fiction and non-fiction books about Mexico. John Scherber

San Miguel’s unusual mix of a traditional Mexican and significant foreign population also makes its way into the books. Although he admits it can distort how one experiences Mexico, the foreign population also provides a source of conflict and drama that provide insight.

Scherber is now a prolific writer, with 46 books in only 17 years. He says he’ll  stop when “… I pitch forward into the keyboard.” Thirty-one of those books are in the Murder in Mexico series, with some other fiction books and five nonfiction related to expat/foreigner life in Mexico.

Most of his audience are people who have some kind of connection to Mexico and/or Latin America, with the setting of his stories being the main initial draw.

Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.

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