Mystery at Barcelona's Olympic City

2009-02-18 00:00

The Serpent’s Tail imprint reissues, relatively cheaply and in English translation, a range of detective stories originally published in Spanish. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s private investigator Pepe Carvalho features in a good many of them, and if this one is typical of his exploits, let’s hope lots more in the series are released in this country soon. The book was originally published in 1992, and the setting is Barcelona before the Olympics, when the city was in a state of upheaval, with whole areas razed to make way for new roads and splendid sports facilities. Carvalho, forced to work for certain unscrupulous Olympic entrepreneurs, noses through the back streets, finding dead bodies and being overwhelmed by the decay indicative of broken socialist promises — made worse, somehow, because the authorities seek to conceal it and present the glittering new Olympic city as the real face of Barcelona. There are shades of other, later Olympic cities here, certainly Beijing 2008, and worrying echoes of what’s happening now as we prepare for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Reviewers of the time praised Montalbán for exposing the criminal power relationships beneath the façade of democracy, and one described him as “caustic about the powerful and tender towards the oppressed”. True, but the acute intelligence and passionate social concern are leavened by a dry sense of humour: one cannot help warming to Carvalho and to his very human appetites (including one for good food). When one realises that the series began in the eighties or earlier, it’s clear that the character of Carvalho and the style of the novels, surely influenced by the grand, endlessly patient pipe-smoking detections of the old French school, were themselves influential in the development of European crime writing, notably in Italy and Sicily. One rather hopes that before Montalbán died in 2003, he’d gained some inkling of his importance to the genre.

Stephanie Alexander

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