Book Review: “Dead Men Cast No Shadows” — A Thriller That’s an Act of Political Courage
By Brooks Geiken
Dead Men Cast No Shadows is an enormously entertaining novel about responses to perfidy in high places by one of the most prominent writers in the Spanish-speaking world.
Dead Men Cast No Shadows by Sergio Ramírez. Volume Three of The Managua Trilogy, translated from the Spanish by Daryl R. Hague. McPherson & Company, 284 pages, $16.
In this novel, 2017 Cervantes prize-winning Nicaraguan author Sergio Ramírez examines a shameful period in Nicaraguan history through the lens of a “novela policíaca” (a police/detective yarn) and he succeeds magnificently, weaving an intriguing narrative out of the return of valiant “Inspector” Dolores Morales (the protagonist of The Managua Trilogy, of which this is the final volume) to Nicaragua from exile in Honduras. He and his faithful friend Serafín Manzanares (a.k.a. Rambo) are initially hidden by a Catholic priest, Monseñor Ortez, and later by another cleric, Padre Pancho. The plot taps into a horrific incident that has yet to receive sufficient international press coverage: the savage repression, by national police and paramilitary forces, of a peaceful student protest at the University of Managua in 2018. Ramírez revisits this disgraceful chapter in Nicaraguan history in order to dramatize the government’s barbaric rationale: that extreme violence was justified in order to quell a radical student rebellion. The writer builds on that false accusation by exposing how those same police forces were responsible for murdering more than 400 people at the time, injuring many others and sending thousands into exile.
Ramírez brings a playful sensibility to this hard-hitting expose. The book starts with a Wikipedia page on “Inspector” Morales — he works as a private investigator but is still known as “Inspector” because of his years with the National Police Force. The use of Wiki is an ingenious way to bring the reader up to date on the detective’s previous exploits. The other major character here is Commissioner Anastasio Prado, also known as “Tongolele.” The head of a secret spy agency, he is in touch with informants from all over Managua. His nickname comes from the fact that he and a famous Mexican actress and dancer share a similar trait: a streak of white runs through their hair. The title of the novel in Spanish is Tongolele No Sabía Bailar (“Tongolele Didn’t Know How to Dance”). It is an appropriate title given that a crucial part of the plot revolves around what Tongolele chooses to do — and not to do It was he who was behind getting Morales and Rambo out of Nicaragua.
Morales and Rambo cross the Honduran border with the aid of El Gato de Oro (The Golden Cat), also known as Genaro Ortez. For his trouble, he is gunned down by two masked men. Eventually, Morales and Rambo end up at the church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción under the protection of priest Monseñor Bienvenido Ortez. His name is an ironic nod to a character in the epic novel Les Miserables: the Monseñor’s mother, an avid reader of Victor Hugo, named him Bienvenido, not dreaming that he would later become a Monseñor. Ortez serves as the novel’s fearless moral conscience — one of his sermons, broadcast on the radio, chronicles how the government, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, has become one of oppression. Ortega’s name is not mentioned, but Monseñor enumerates many of the ruler’s crimes against the people. As the priest points out — with alarm — no one has fought back against powerful authoritarian pressures. Everyone is complacent with, even accepting of, the domination of a police state. But the students at the University of Managua are not among the contented, and they are planning a civil protest.
As the catastrophe at the university approaches, Morales and his friend Doña Sofia begin to receive mysterious missives from an unknown messenger. Because the envelopes contain pertinent information about corruption in the government, the pair decide to publish them anonymously on Twitter (now known as X). Each message is accompanied by an image of the mask popularized in the film V Is for Vengeance, which has become a well known symbol of efforts to fight against repressive governments. These tweets about official corruption become increasingly popular, and that puts Morales and Sofia in danger.
Adding considerable spice to the plot are the comments of the ever-present Lord Dixon. He is a dead friend of Morales, dispatched in No One Weeps For Me Now, the previous novel in the trilogy. Dixon voice is registered via italics in the text; he is a wonderful and inventive character who routinely dispenses harsh, though often funny, commentary. Only Morales can hear him so, when he responds to Dixon he seems to be talking to himself.
Dead Men Cast No Shadows gets down to the noir nitty gritty after Padre Pancho, another important Catholic priest, writes a letter condemning the police and paramilitary for violently putting down the student protest. The cleric vividly details the terrifying events of that day. Wounded students, many of them shot in the head, were brought to the church. Rambo brought in a woman who has been brutally raped. Pancho’s church, Jesus Of The Divine Mercy, was riddled with bullets from AK-47s.This vision of death and destruction provides evidence — on a small scale — of what was going on all over Managua.
Ramírez’s novel is very much in the spirit of Pancho’s letter. When Tongolele No Sabía Bailar was published in 2021 a warrant was soon issued for the arrest of Sergio Ramírez. The “charges” were transparently false, bu the author was forced to leave the country. After the warrant was issued, Ramírez’s passport was revoked and his home (with his precious library) confiscated by the government. He now resides in Madrid, a man without a country. This is not the first time Ramírez has been forced into exile. Before the Sandinistas took over from the corrupt Somoza government, Ramírez found safety living in Costa Rica. He is no stranger to exile. (Note: I would not be surprised if it wasn’t Ortega himself who ordered the charges to be brought against Ramírez.)
Dead Men Cast No Shadows is an enormously entertaining novel about responses to perfidy in high places by one of the most prominent writers in the Spanish-speaking world. It is a courageous act of political defiance; Ramírez has paid a painful price for simply putting pen to paper to tell the truth.
Brooks Geiken is a retired Spanish teacher with a lifelong interest in music, specifically Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and Black American music. His wife thinks he should write a book titled “The White Dude’s Guide to Afro-Cuban and Jazz Music.” Brooks lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.