Historians focusing on the state of Puebla in the postrevolutionary period face fairly daunting challenges. The three decades after 1920 were uncommonly tumultuous, and governors routinely covered their tracks by destroying their official documents. Yet another pitfall threatens the historian who focuses on Maximino Ávila Camacho, a man so renowned for brutality and corruption that one is tempted to treat him as an anomaly, the sort of character who invites the cliché “larger than life.” Anomalies are by definition unrepresentative and presumably have little to teach us about the time and place of which they were a part.

Alejandro Quintana rises to these challenges by utilizing a creative variety of sources and refusing to portray Maximino as an anomaly. Without denying that he was more colorful, ambitious, and talented than most of his contemporaries, Quintana presents us with a politician who, he argues,...

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