What do you get when you cross a Mexican-born Jewish intellectual with the creator of the Rabbi Harvey comics? Surprise—it’s a most unusual conspiracy thriller.
Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College; Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots, 2012, etc.) manages to shoehorn in a host of influences in his latest graphic novel, with spare, nearly amateurish illustrations by textbook author and illustrator Sheinkin (Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, 2012, etc.). This murder-mystery digs into the history of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, who went into hiding after their expulsion by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492. The story opens with the death of disgraced seminary student Rolando Pérez outside Santa Fe, N.M. Professor Stavans plays himself in this shadowy plot, having just arrived in the city to give a brief lecture, followed by a joyful evening at the famous Santa Fe Opera House. He’s lured into the story by Irina Rodriguez, the cousin of deceased Rolando, and she’s sure her cousin’s death was no accident. There’s a great deal of intellectual theory here—early on, Stavans muses, “The real history of crypto-Jews isn’t in what we know, but in what we don’t. They were members of a club whose existence they would swear didn’t exist,” and so on. But somehow it carries on, from Sheinkin’s almost rudimentary depictions of Santa Fe’s desert austerity, to Stavans’ winking ridicule of his advocacy for Spanglish and self-mocking references to what is a fairly rich and impenetrable religious mystery. “I suppose you’ll turn the whole murky mystery into some preposterous page-turner. The Da Vinci Code, with matzo and salsa picante,” says one rival. Not nearly that blunt, nor as vivid as some readers may wish.
Another bold, if gratuitous, experiment from an academic with impeccable credentials and a keen sense of the secrets we hold most dear.