When Esperanza, an undocumented young Mexican, is arrested in Louisiana for the gruesome murder of her 11-month-old baby, a mitigation specialist, Richard, digs through her recent past hoping to save her from the death penalty.
We learn from the start that Richard, who narrates the book from the beyond, á la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, was unable to save himself from a violent fate. A New Yorker who lived in Mexico City for several years, he dies in the "dicey No Man's Land" of Juárez before he's able to conclude his investigation. But his violent death only deepens his fascination with Mexico—with its culture, its myths, its victims. An acclaimed fiction writer whose commercial failure led to his present line of work, he views Esperanza and the hellish conditions she endured through an irreverent lens. The harsher the details, the breezier his sense of irony. "I wondered if I was out of my depth working a dead-baby case," he says, hoping to catch a break because the baby's killing wasn't "CCP," meaning "cold, calculated and premeditated." But as you might expect from a book bearing two tragic signposts—Richard's novel had the bad luck to be published the day after 9/11; Esperanza ends up in Louisiana because there were cleanup jobs available following Hurricane Katrina—the irreverence is undercut by compassion. Lida, himself a mitigation specialist and writer with deep ties to Mexico (where he lives), pours personal emotion into his story. In the process, he brings an elusive sense of dignity to a world where it is seemingly lost.
Lida, who drew praise for First Stop in the New World (2008), his nonfiction book about Mexico City, makes a rewarding move into fiction.