I first met John Desjarlais at Magna cum Murder a couple of years ago. I was fascinated with his protagonist and with all the research he had done. He said, for instance, that he knew way more about women’s shoes than he ought to. It was he, in fact, who sparked my own interest in the mad variety of shoes, although I could carry all the shoes I own in the pockets of my coat. And my coat has two pockets.
Anyway, here’s something about VIPER:
Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last. Working against time, prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe as many in the Mexican community believe, or is it, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death?
Now take it away, John:
Marian, you asked me to say something about the interplay of Mexican Catholicism and Aztec myth in my latest mystery VIPER, and add a word about my Latina character’s interest in shoes. They are all related.
The premise of VIPER concerns the Catholic practice on All Souls’ Day of placing a ledger in church called ‘The Book of the Dead’ where families record the names of relatives who have died that year so they can be remembered. But nine names have been entered into Selena De La Cruz’s parish church’s ledger of people who are not dead – until they start getting murdered one by one in the order listed – and the last name is Selena De La Cruz.
This is concurrent with the Mexican holiday called “The Day of the Dead,” making VIPER very much immersed in Mexican-American culture. A secondary premise concerned the mysterious appearance of a “Blue Lady” to a local girl visionary, announcing each killing just before it happens. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe, as many in the Mexican community believe (as She is the patroness of Mexico), or the Aztec goddess of Death, claiming another soul?
Part of my research, then, concerned Marian apparitions in general. There are MANY alleged apparitions of The Blessed Mother but the Catholic Church does not recognize all of them. Most are dismissed as invalid and the imagining of an enthusiastic or ill seer. Some are categorized as ‘private’ revelations that, while meaningful to the visionary, are not incumbent upon all believers. So the Church allows that such an experience may be meaningful to the individual visionary, but it remains an open issue for everyone else – even if there are thousands who profess a deep faith in the apparitions. Medjugore falls into that category. On the other hand, there are ‘approved’ apparitions that the Church – after a rigorous investigation – has concluded are genuine. Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe, among others (I forget how many, forgive me, but it’s not many), fall into this category.
Nearly all of these ‘approved’ events involve young girls like Jacinta in my story – pre-teen, uneducated, and not particularly devout. So she is the ‘typical’ visionary. It was necessary for her to be Mexican so that the mysterious “Blue Lady” who appears to her (and only to her; no one else can see her – also typical) could possibly be Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. The original apparition was in December 1531 to a peasant whose cape was impressed with her image, a cape still on display in the shrine to her in Mexico City. Devotion to her is central to Mexican identity and the Mexican ideal of femininity: chaste and demure. So she is part of my exploration of Selena’s struggle with her bi-cultural identity.
But the apparition might also be the Aztec goddess of death or Aztec goddess-princess of fertility and death, Xochiquetzal, who also is pictured with a blue mantle covered in stars. Among Mexicans, there is still some acknowledgment of the ancient deities, and there is a movement to recover devotion to them as a way of re-affirming the native Mexican cultural heritage. This includes devotion to the many snake-deities (like The Feathered Serpent) or to those who are pictured with snakes, such as Coatlicue, the ‘mother of gods,’ who gave birth to the sun god and who wears a skirt of rattlers and skulls. The interesting connection to Our Lady of Guadalupe (besides the fact that she is the ‘Mother of God’ who gives birth to the Son of God) is that her name in the native tongue means ‘she who crushes the snake.’ This can refer to two things. First, turning to the Catholic faith through Our Lady ended the bloody human sacrifices of the Aztecs, slaughtering tens upon tens of thousands of men, women and children per year. In addition, ‘she who crushes the snake’ can refer to the passage in Genesis 3:15 where Eve is told that enmity will be exist always between a woman and a snake: “He will strike at her heels, but she will crush his head.’ This has always been taken to refer typologically to Mary, the New Eve, crushing the Evil One – The Serpent – by bringing Christ the Saviour into the world.
Speaking of heels: Latinas dig the zappatos and they are very much a part of a Latina’s femininity and power as a woman. A girl receives her first pair of high heels from her father at her ‘Quiceañera,” a lavish prom-like coming-of-age event at age 15. One of my Latina readers of the work-in-progress made some suggestions for the footwear but I made most of the choices by browsing zappos.com. I knew I was getting all this cultural stuff right when she wrote to me saying, “I am SO into Selena!” What a relief.
Amazon links – USA paper, Kindle, and UK paper, Kindle:
Thanks, John! For more information on him and on his work, visit his website. You’ll be glad you did!
WRITING PROMPT: If your main character saw a spiritual vision, what would it be?