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The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill

May 26, 2014 2 comments

The-Good-Suicides-A-Thriller-722092-c0feeb1118bbdc7ccedf

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.

Antonio Hill

Antonio Hill

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.

The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The Summer of Dead Toys

Recently, I was reading an article about Anthea Bell who, for me, remains one of the best translators of all time. In this, I’m not relying simply upon the magnificence of her work on the Asterix series, but reflecting on a career spent in service to authors and readers equally. In her usual self-deprecating way, she’s always insisted the translator should be invisible, but that allows people to misunderstand the reality of the role. What she means is that the work of translation should not be apparent to the readers. Their experience should be indistinguishable from a book originally written in English. That means something rather more than literally translating the words used by the author. Too often this results in odd vocabulary choices and strange grammatical structures. The natural language translator should creatively attempt to capture the spirit of the author’s intention, and express that in the “foreign” language. At times, this will mean slightly adapting the text to reflect local cultural expectations. In this process, a balance must be struck between fidelity to the original text and the need for people to be comfortable reading the text in the target language.

My reason for starting in this way is my sense the translation of The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill (Crown Publishing, 2013) which is credited to Laura McGloughlin, is not as good as it might be. Although I have an acquired flexibility to reading more or less anything put in front of me, this feels wooden at times. I found the use of language slightly distracting. This is unfortunate because the plot is a good example of a subgenre growing in popularity. If we’re going to play the game of labels, I suppose we have to consider this Iberian or, more generally, Mediterranean noir. That means we’re dealing with the darker content of trafficking, child abuse, and so on, but some distance from the more traditional Scandinavia. I’m not against the use of these themes. Books benefit from greater realism and social awareness. We would be foolish if, as a society, we only wanted to read about contemporary events through rose-tinted spectacles. Without some degree of outrage at the treatment of women, an alarming number of whom are forced into the sex trade, how can the behaviour of our men in buying their services ever be brought under control? Similarly, without discussing the mistreatment of children, how can parents and authority figures be persuaded to improve their behaviour?

So we start with Inspector Hector Salgado being forced to sit on the bench for a month after savagely beating a man allegedly involved in the trafficking business. Righteous indignation and anger are a necessary part of any serious detective’s character in noir fiction. Naturally, there are hidden secrets in the man’s past which explain his particular horror over the mistreatment of the young and women. To emphasise his different qualities, he’s actually an Argentinian who, as a young man, was sent to Spain to complete his education and elected to stay on. While he’s almost completely assimilated into the culture of his adoptive city Barcelona, he retains some degree of objectivity about that culture. With comparative experience, he’s better placed than locals to see strengths and weaknesses in Catalan society. To complete his profile, his wife has left him for another woman. With both Argentinian and Spanish culture based on machismo, this betrayal and subsequent events were more than usually provocative and, in part, the stressors which triggered his violent attack on the arrested trafficker.

Antonio Hill

Antonio Hill

To ease him back into the department, Superintendent Savall gives him a slightly unofficial case to investigate. The Superintendent knows the woman whose son has died and some of the family’s history. He feels morally obliged to be seen to do something. With our hero being acknowledged as tenacious, he’s the right man to decide whether there’s anything suspicious about a young man’s fall from a top storey window. To help, he’s allocated Agent Leire Castro, a rookie who comes with high marks from the training academy. Together they set off into the hinterland of the wealthy which naturally guards its secrets. Meanwhile Sergeant Martina Andreu continues to deal with the fallout from our hero’s assault. She’s not supposed to talk to our hero but, as is usually the case with police departments, there are strong ties of loyalty between the team members and they are soon forced to confront a difficult development.

The two investigations move forward to successful conclusions and the ending is set up for the sequel which has been published in Spain. There are a number of problems. The dynamic for the potential suicide investigation depends on an outrageous series of coincidences. When you think about the two more important elements required to set the ball rolling, you either class this as radical and daring plotting, or it’s an admission of failure, i.e. the only way to make the plot work is for circumstances to be contrived. The second problem is the perfunctory way in which one of the investigations is tied up. Here’s this deep-seated plot, very carefully executed, that contains the seed of its own destruction. How is the seed detected? The detective just happens to see a photograph. . . and on that one fact, she goes to the right place, and finds people there, one of whom spills the beans almost immediately. How convenient that it can all be resolved in two pages!

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book for its view of Spanish culture. We should note the author’s decision to place two women in key policing role, and to have the hero’s wife swing to the other sexual pole. The book also accepts couples will sometimes have quite wide age variations, or that a pregnant woman may not be so distressed if the father decides he needs to go out to buy some cigarettes, and so on. This is a more open-minded version of Spain than I was expecting, albeit one that’s being put together to conform to the noir expectations. In all this, Salgado’s character is portrayed in a very sympathetic way. He walks the line between the powerless passivity of a victim and a man in search of redemption. The result is an engaging mystery puzzle for us to solve. No matter what the triggers are, disentangling the web of motives and activities proves intellectually satisfying. The characterisation is rounded in credible social contexts. The Summer of Dead Toys is worth reading.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Suicides.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) a short ebook collection @ $3.99, starts with “Still Life No 41”, shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2013 Edgar Awards, in which the young twenty-six year old Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art is pushed out of her job on the orders of the Minister of Culture. She’s naturally outraged. While it’s true she only got the job because the previous director had been her uncle and her father used his political pull with the Minister, it wasn’t her fault that the first exhibition she curated should turn out like that. The Museum had been negotiating for two years to persuade the artist to allow his work to be displayed. Our first-person narrator simply came in at the end with the deal in place. All she had to do was display what arrived. Which is what she did even though there was one more piece than the Museum was expecting. The launch was a triumph. Even the canapés were deemed sensational. After the excitement of the opening, every art critic who attended during the first days of the exhibition was ecstatic, confirming the forty-first work to be one of the finest example of modern art he or she had seen for years. It’s all so unfair she should be the political scapegoat.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The reason why “A Stitch in Time” is so successful is the tone. I mean if I was going to do something like this, I would have to be organised and stay calm. This is not the kind of thing to do when you’re all-a-flutter. Perhaps one of the more powerful anti-anxiety pills would be a good idea, just to settle the nerves but, once started, I would need to keep myself in one piece emotionally without external aid. And then it’s all as I rehearsed when the police come. Oh yes, the police are almost certain to come. But I’ll have everything ready by then. . . It’s the same with “The Thought That Counts”, a strangely dispassionate history of the life of a vampire. Did you know what having your very own vampire in residence does for the tourist trade? Everyone wants to come for the dark and forbidding castle and to sample the atmosphere where the beast sucked the life out of so many virgins. Anyway, having lived a lonely unlife through the centuries, you can imagine how our hero feels when someone tells him another bloodsucker has moved into his territory, and without so much as a by-your-leave or a friendly “Hello”.

“The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer” shows a troglodyte of above-average intelligence tasked with the job of investigating three murders. Someone is bashing out the brains of his fellow cave dwellers with conveniently-to-hand rocks which is disturbing the amenity of the cave and putting some of the other men on edge — at least those bright enough to see a correlation between dead men and blood-stained rocks left a few feet away from the body. Our hero is able to discount Geoffrey as a suspect because a bear ate his arms which makes rock-wielding a challenge. But be reassured, our Sherlock of the Stone Age is going to crack the case as soon as he realizes the game’s afoot, or something. And finally, “The Offering” has a pathologist readying himself for an autopsy without realizing it’s the body of one of the secretaries working at his clinic who’s apparently committed suicide. When the truth sinks in, he grows obsessed with the question why she should have taken her life. He visits her apartment and learns something of her by observing what she left behind. But it’s when he confronts the body that he realizes her motive. This story, like the others in this short collection, has a brooding sense of tragedy overlain with a satirical sensibility.

Thematically, we’re concerned with individuals who find their lives turned upside down by events. The Museum director accepts the additional exhibit, the mother can only find love for her child, the vampire is first curious then angered another is attacking the people who live around him, the detective who can penetrate the mysteries of life, and the pathologist who finds unexpected beauty. Set out in simple phrases, this fails to capture the wit and humour underlying the sometimes gory subject matter. Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is not quite black humour, but it’s certainly dark grey and a delightful surprise in a world that’s largely forgotten the function satire is supposed to perform, i.e. as a form of social commentary or criticism designed to encourage the world to improve. This review should encourage us to try Teresa Solana’s latest mystery novel The Sound of One Hand Killing which comes out in May.

For a review of one of her novels, see The Sound of One Hand Killing.

“Still Life No 41” was nominated as in the Best Short Story category of the 2013 Edgar Awards.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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