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'Godmother' Of Mystery Fiction: Who Was Mexican Author María Elvira Bermúdez, Known As 'Mexican Agatha Christie?'

María Elvira Bermúdez wrote engrossing mystery novels that doubled as a tool to question and criticize the patriarchy in mid-century Mexico. 

By Gina Tron
Library Mexico City G

María Elvira Bermúdez was a trailblazer. She was the first woman in Mexico City to obtain a law degree at Escuela Libre de Derecho and a prolific writer of ground breaking detective fiction that contributed to establishing the rules and structure of the contemporary mystery novel. Her crime solving protagonists took on corruption and murder, leading the reader past red herrings and brushes with danger, but they really stood out for another reason: her main characters were women. 

Dr. Sandra Ruiz, Associate Professor at West Los Angeles College, told Oxygen.com that Bermúdez practiced law for nearly twenty years, served for Mexico's Supreme Court, and was active in Mexico City's social and political culture.

"It doesn't take much to say that there are cases of corruption," Bermúdez once said regarding her work in the justice system. 

As a result, she became a trailblazing writer and activist.

“She contributed to local newspapers and journals, writing opinion pieces on the fight for women's suffrage alongside book review,” Ruiz said She noted that In 1955, she was the only woman to be included and published by one of México's most influential philosophical groups where she was a leading critical voice against the patriarchal power of the Mexican family structure.

Bermúdez began publishing fiction in the 1940s, not long after Agatha Christie’s 1939 book “And Then There Were None” became a bestseller. Poet Marco Antonio Campos dubbed her "the Mexican Agatha Christie." Like with Christie, Bermúdez’s stories featured smart female detectives as their protagonists. While Christie had Miss Marple, Bermúdez had Elena Morán, a housewife and lover of mystery novels married to a federal congressman. The novels gave Morán the tools to solve crimes. Bermúdez has been credited for creating the first female detective in Latin America with her depiction of Morán. 

Ruiz told Oxygen.com that “in México and throughout Latin America, Bermúdez is considered the godmother of detective/mystery fiction.” However, her work has never been translated into English. 

“With a genre that has been dominated by men and continues to be, her work is not only groundbreaking, but she centers women and their lived experiences,” Dr. Ruiz explained. “Even though the stories are told through a fictional lens, they carry a truth Mexican and Latin American women can relate to.”

Al Día wrote that Bermúdez used her novels as a tool to express her political views. One main theme was women’s rights, in particular the right to vote. 

Bermúdez’ 1961 detective novelDetente, sombra” featured professional women exclusively. Morán was tasked with solving the murder of América Fernández, a writer who found dead at the home of literary critic Georgina Banuet. 

“Bermúdez creates an all-female world, one that is not utopic but complex and layered. The reader experiences a world where women are present in all public and private areas of Mexico City life,” Ruiz told Oxygen.com. “And it's not that men do not exist in this world, they are talked about in the story, but men are not the center, the women are. The women's stories, professions, problems, friendships, nemeses are the world that envelops the reader in ‘Detente, sombra.’”

She noted that the story also includes a lesbian couple, “demonstrating Bermúdez's commitment to representing all aspects of Mexican women's lives, even during a time where queer relationships were seen as anti-Mexican and anti-family.”

While Bermúdez died in 1982, her influence lives on.

“Bermúdez was a huge mentor to women and queer writers in Mexico throughout her career,” Ruiz told Oxygen.com. She said that the author inspired many contemporary authors to challenge the stigma that detective-mystery fiction still carries to this day: that it is not literary or deep. 

“During Bermúdez's lifetime, she worked to dismantle this perception through her essays, mentoring young writers, and supporting new directions the genre has branched into such as the novela negra,” Ruiz said. She said that author Silvia Moreno-García, who writes in English, as well as Fernanda Melchor and Patricia Valladares, who write in Spanish, were influenced by the late author.

Moreno-Garcia's novel "Velvet Was the Night" is the October pick for the Oxygen.com book club