Crime and grit: A retrospective collection from the don of Chicano noir

An uneven but often rewarding collection from one of the West’s masterful storytellers.


The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories is the first collection of short fiction from the Denver-based writer Manuel Ramos, often called the “Godfather of Chicano Noir.” Their settings range from El Paso to rural Colorado and the megalopolis of Los Angeles, and from the Mexican Revolution to the 1950s and the present. The mostly Chicano characters include lawyers, veterans and a prostitute, with a guest appearance by Jack Kerouac. Written between 1986 and 2014, the stories reflect the stylistic development of Ramos, author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, among other acclaimed crime novels.

General Pancho Villa leads his troops during the Battle of Ojinaga in 1914, which was filmed for the movie The Life of General Villa. The film included scenes of genuine battles from the Mexican Revolution. Villa’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1926.
John Davidson Wheelan /Archivo General de la Nación (Mexican General National Archive)

Standouts include the eponymous “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” in which the skull, nicknamed “Panchito,” that supposedly belonged to the “Robin Hood of Mexico” is stolen in an act of revenge. In “Bad Haircut Day,” an ambitious but heretofore ethical Denver attorney finds himself covering up a murder. A wheelchair-bound former baseball player thwarts a burglar in “Sentimental Value.”

Almost without exception these stories involve crime, law enforcement and desperation. Ramos is a master at creating atmosphere, especially a 1940s private-eye feel, moodily cinematic in black and white and more than 50 gritty shades of gray. You can almost hear Bogie growl at the end of  “No Hablo Inglés”: “When it snows, my shoulder aches, and I smell copal and marigolds.” And what could be more “Guy Noir” in flavor than the first sentence of “When the Air Conditioner Quit”: “When the air conditioner quit, Torres shot it.”

Most of the stories reflect a cynical humor. From “White Devils and Cockroaches”: “Gonzalez made a living representing crazies, weirdos, misfits, losers and plain folks who got taken. … Each morning he reminded himself he was not a burned out liberal who took up space on legal aid’s payroll. … He was an ace attorney for the underdog.”

This collection is uneven, but that’s not surprising in a literary retrospective that represents a considerable body of work from its beginning through its coming of age as Ramos becomes a master storyteller. He tells the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, their lives often complicated by prejudice, just doing the best they can in los Estados Unidos.

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories
Manuel Ramos
181 pages,
softcover: $17.95.
Arte Público Press, 2015.
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