In the Southern Clime, Where the Summer’s Prime

I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman.
— (Selva Almada, Dead Girls p.5)
 
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Dead Girls

by Selva Almada

translated by Annie McDermott

Charco Press

 

Andrea Danne. On November 16th 1986 she was found by her mother, in the bed where she always slept, stabbed to death. Sarita Mundín. Last seen alive on March 12th 1988, she was missing for months before her remains were found on December 29th on the riverbank. María Luisa Quevedo. On December 8th 1990 she got dressed and went to work as a maid, and was last seen alive shortly after she got off work that afternoon. Three days later someone called the police because they found a body dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city. 

What happened to them? Who murdered them? Are they connected somehow?

Three girls, murdered in their own small Argentinian towns two years apart one from the other, all three cases unsolved. Years later, after the police and the courts and the newspapers, and the towns themselves, have stopped talking about them, Selva Almada begins to look closer at these murders. She was aware of them since they happened, as well as all the other girls who went missing or murdered or raped in between these three and in the years since. She recalls a story her mother told her about another girl who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped days before her wedding day. In her book Dead Girls, Danne, Mundín and Quevedo are the focus, but similar stories come up in every chapter. This thing happens all the time, everywhere, and it’s numbing to read about. 

Still, there is something ritualistic about the way [Andrea Danne] was murdered: stabbed once in the heart, while she slept. As if her own bed were the sacrificial stone.
— (Selva Almada, p. 46)

One of my first trials was a case I thought had been closed months before I showed up on that first day. A woman stabbed to death in her own bed while sleeping. Like Andrea Danne. The differences were that she was married and they arrested the murderer the next morning. Her husband. Also, unlike Danne, she was stabbed several times, in the neck. The first time I asked about the crime, the phrase the barrister used was “nearly decapitated.” Oh, and unlike Danne, her two children were sleeping in the next door bedroom. The husband appeared to have been rendered catatonic by the event, he said he hadn’t killed her when he was arraigned, even claiming his wife was still alive and the police were lying to him about her death, although several doctors and psychiatrists examined him and their expert evidence concluded that he was faking his mental state. Despite him having no defence, the prosecutor wanted to make sure that he presented the best case possible so that there was no chance the jury might consider a not guilty verdict. And so began those two weeks of family members on the witness box describing the happy couple and the shock they felt at the news of what happened, the witness of the sister-in-law who arrived first at the scene after the suicidal murderer texted her in the middle of the night to come pick up the kids in the morning; the suicide notes left to the children saying their mother was a whore and had cheated on him many times and that only blood could wash away the dishonour; the knives he used to stab her and himself, in his failed suicide, and the blood splatter expert explaining to the jury how he could tell more or less how the murder happened based on how the blood soaked into the sheets and mattress and puddling on the floor and the drops on the wall next to the bed. All the while, I’m sitting next to this guy, doing my job, and I can’t help the tears when the prosecutor reads the letter the daughter wrote him, after being flown in from abroad to give evidence only to be deemed unnecessary on the day, where she said that she had no father anymore. You want me to keep going?

Towards the end of the trial I was talking to one of the officers on the case and I remarked that I hadn’t expected such a murder case in such a small and affluent town, and her response was “it happens much more often than you think.” Almada knew this too, of course. She writes about living in a culture where femicide is to some degree accepted as a fact of life, if not fully normalised. “I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there” (Almada, page 37). Violence against women and femicide go hand in hand with misogyny, and often toxic masculinity. Men feeling entitled to sex, to ownership, to control, throwing around words like “cockteaser” and “asking for it.” How often does this entitlement, having found resistance, turns into violence and hatred? Rapists mutilating victims before murdering them? Sexual gratification is one thing, but it often goes beyond that. When women protest against rape culture, they do mean culture. Another dead girl, Alejandra Martínez: “She was semi-naked and in an advanced stage of decomposition, her nipples had been cut off and her vagina and uterus removed, along with most of her fingertips” (48). It happens more than you think. By now you’ve already thought of a similar story you read about in the news last year, ten years ago, when you were young, in your hometown, in the next town, in the big capital. Maybe someone you vaguely know of from somewhere. When Almada, in her journey to understand, rather than investigate, these murders, goes to the place where Quevedo’s body was found, she asks a local about the exact place:

I’m looking for where a girl’s body was left, some years ago. I don’t know if you remember. Was it there, in the rubbish tip?

Maira Tévez? Yeah, right there, they threw her on that tip there.
— (Selva Almada, p. 138)

Towards the end of the book Almada expresses a feeling that she’s forty and alive, unlike thousands of girls she is writing about, purely as a matter of luck. This might seem like grim pessimism, but the whole book has an eerie feeling to it because of her writing style. It’s the moments when she describes the street outside Quevedo’s brother’s office after he shows Almada the one photograph he has of her sister, or when she is looking for Danne’s grave in the cemetery. Her writing is exceptional in the way the world outside the murder is depicted, the details that make it in when they seems unrelated, the heat and the dust and the swarms of flies. “A mad dog we used to have once buried her puppies in the shed. She ripped the head off one of them” (2). 

But what this book really does well is challenge the true crime obsession in an indirect way. I once heard a joke that so many women are into true crime podcasts as research into their own murders. Unsettling, dark, and with a sharp point. But what is worse is the sensationalisation of murder. It’s a mystery, it’s intriguing, captivating, you want to know what happens next. Is it a consolation or an upsetting realisation to know that it has always been this way? The so-called Quevedo Case became “the number one mystery and horror series of that 1984 Chaco summer. A tale of intrigue, suspicion, red herrings and false testimony, which people followed in the papers and on the radio as if it were a soap opera or a serialised novel” (119).

I’ve felt it myself. When I tell people about that murder trial they are hanging on my every word, they want all the gory details, and if the man on trial had any sort of defense, I’m sure they’d scrutinise it and if it was in any way plausible they’d start thinking who else might have done it. Here is what you need to know about that: a young woman was murdered by her husband as she slept in their bed, their children were in the bedroom next door and will grow up without parents, it happens more often than you think. When this happened to Danne, the same obsession raised its head, in its own small-town way: “It was a long rest of the night in which relatives, friends and curious bystanders gathered in Andrea’s room, looking at her laid out in bed and covered in blood” (103).

Before she was murdered, María Luisa Quevedo was seen with a couple of new friends she had made, and it was believed they were somehow involved, or at least knew more than what they’d said. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but the book gives me the impression that it could’ve been one of them instead of Quevedo. How do they feel about that night being written about every day for months and years on newspapers and books by people who know very little about them? They “left Sáenz Peña soon after the murder and never stayed long in the same place. As the years went by, [the judge in the case] watched them grow into women, have children. But he could never get a word out of either of them” (75). 

Parents left with funeral arrangements, organising search parties, missing-person posters. Siblings identifying remains too damaged by dirt and water and time to resemble their sister anymore. Classmates ordering a plaque for their friend’s grave. And this great podcast you gotta check out.


 
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Platon Poulas

Working on a print issue.

 

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