The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill
The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill, translated from the Spanish by Laura McGloughlin (Crown, 2014) might be labelled as a police procedural. After all, it features Inspector Héctor Salgado, originally from Argentina but now working in Barcelona. As in the first book to feature this detective, he’s caught up in the investigation of a complex case that challenges his intellect as those involved refuse to co-operate in an open way. At face value, their resistance is understandable. The first two incidents are four months apart. Gaspar Ródenas, an employee of Alemany Cosmetics, appears to have killed his wife and child, then turned the gun on himself. Then Sara Mahler, a secretary at Alemany, throws herself in front of a subway train — a gruesome photograph of dead dogs captioned “Never Forget” was sent to Sara’s mobile phone just before her death. Two suicides — these unfortunately events happen and, for those who work at Alemany Cosmetics, the coincidence just makes their feelings of distress at losing two colleague all the more acute.
Salgado is the officer called to the subway to consider the death of Sara Mahler. Had it not been for the photograph sent to her phone, this would have been treated as yet another suicide. But for Salgado, this anomaly indicates the need to move slowly before confirming the nature of the event. The dividing line between homicide and suicide proves difficult to distinguish because the one surveillance camera showing her “fall” is partially obscured, and the gang of boys also on the platform are less than helpful. So to resolve the question, Salgado embarks on an investigation, first, into the life of Sarah Mahler and, after he realises there had been an earlier event, then into the lives of all those connected with Alemany Cosmetics. When he finds a photograph showing a group of employees on a team-building exercise, he wonders whether something happened to put these particular individuals at risk.
Meanwhile, Leire Castro, Salgado’s usual colleague, has taken maternity leave. To distract herself while waiting for the baby to arrive, she decides to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Salgado’s estranged wife, Ruth Valldaura. This plot element depends on the reader understanding what happened in the first book in the series. The political forces within the police force in Barcelona combined with the social dynamics of the wider network of family, friends and colleague are all intrinsic to this separate investigation. Indeed, it’s this investigation that leaves us with the delightfully surprising cliffhanger ending. Salgado may get the the truth of the “suicides”, but Leire merely raises a provocative piece of historical information and a curious new fact about who might have been in the house around the same time Ruth went missing.
No matter what the country, some elements of life and the relationships people make achieve universality. These truths about people apply no matter what the place or time. In these two books which one should see as an interlinked pair, Antonio Hill has created a genuinely tangled web in which the detective and those immediately around him are caught. Because he’s too emotionally involved, the detective cannot investigate his ex-wife’s disappearance. Fortunately, his colleague can use her own time to move the case forward before it goes totally cold. Similarly, the question of the suicides depends on a clear understanding of who everyone is as a person and what forces might be at work to persuade some or all of them into a conspiracy of silence. Perhaps I should explain the point of the book’s title. In deciding to end their lives, some people intend to hurt others, to make them feel guilty for real or imagined wrongs. Such people tend to leave notes explaining their motives for self-destruction. But there are good suicides in which, for example, people with a terminal disease kill themselves intending to reduce the suffering of those around them. If we focus on Sarah Mahler who jumps in front of a train without leaving a note, her motives become the critical feature. Where had she been? What had she been doing? What was her physical and emotional health? Only when the detective has a complete view of the person and the context in which she acted can a proper determination be made. In The Good Suicides, the answer to the entire case involving Alemany Cosmetics is as neat a piece of deduction as you could hope to find as all the possible solutions are eliminated to leave only one answer standing. It’s very elegant! As a final thought, this is not only a far better book than the first in the series but, in retrospect, this second round of investigation into Ruth’s disappearance makes the first novel seem rather better.
For a review of the first book in the series, see The Summer of Dead Toys.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.