Santiago Roncagliolo is the author of Abril Rojo, winner of the Premio Alfaguara de Novela and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He is also the author of a book of short stories, Crecer es un Oficio Triste; a journalistic research book, La Cuarta Espada; a literary biography, El Amante Uruguayo; and a children’s book, Matías y Los Imposibles. His works have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent novel is Oscar y las mujeres. This year he will release La pena máxima, a new story featuring Félix Chacaltana.
McSWEENEY’S: So how did you approach the idea of writing a crime story? Did you start with a character, or a particular situation, or something else?
SANTIAGO RONCAGLIOLO: My crime stories always have the same protagonist: Assistant Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldívar, a strict bureaucrat and lover of paperwork who investigates the most heinous crimes. He is based on my own experience working as a public employee, and he allows me to tell incredibly bloody stories with a lot of dark humor.
McSWEENEY’S: We asked you for a story set in Peru. How much did you think about that, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
RONCAGLIOLO: The idea came to me immediately: an assassination takes place in the world of Andean folksingers. It was a world I had come to know well as a journalist, one which blends passion, nationalism, and a particularly despicable breed of organized crime. It’s our version of Frank Sinatra and Cosa Nostra, but with less money and without blond people.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Peruvian author, or a particular Peruvian book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the genre particularly well?
RONCAGLIOLO: There was a brilliant reporter: Guillermo Thorndike, who, among other things, covered the major crime stories in Peru throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In my opinion, he’s the Vargas Llosa of nonfiction. Or Ricardo Uceda. It’s strange, but, thinking about this question, only journalists come to mind. The history of Peru is like an episode of The Wire that lasts five centuries.
McSWEENEY’S: At one point, after the murder of your folksinger, you write that “thousands of weeping fans attended her funeral, many of them children.” Can you talk about why a figure like that interested you?
RONCAGLIOLO: I’ve known a few singers like her. Their fans don’t just treat them like stars—more like gurus or gods. But, on a personal level, they lead a sort of comic and sordid existence. And, sometimes, they forget the difference between their public image and reality. This contrast is an exquisite example of national hypocrisy, one of Peru’s most important traditions.
McSWEENEY’S: Chacaltana, your protagonist, is mainly interested in getting his paperwork done.
RONCAGLIOLO: The Assistant Prosecutor is a very difficult literary detective to write about. He is, perhaps, the only investigator in literature who does not want to investigate crimes. But, because he’s obsessed with procedure and process, he always ends up finding—despite himself—tiny bureaucratic errors that lead him to the answer. When I was a public employee this happened to us all the time. Often times it was our mistakes that ended up yielding the best results.