Published by McLehose Press
Publication date – 22 February 2022
Source – review copy
When Melchor goes to investigate the horrific double-murder of a rich printer and his wife in rural Cataluña nothing quite adds up. The young cop from the big city, hero of a foiled terrorist attack, has been sent to Terra Alta till things quieten down. Observant, streetwise and circumspect, Melchor is an also an outsider.
The son of a Barcelona prostitute who never knew his father, Melchor rapidly fell into trouble and was jailed at 19, convicted of driving for a Colombian drug cartel. While he was behind bars, he read Hugo’s Les Misérables, and then his mother was murdered. Admiring of both Jean Valjean and Javert – but mostly the relentless Javert – he decided to become a policeman.
Now he is out for revenge, but he can wait, and meanwhile he has discovered happiness with his wife, the local librarian, and their daughter, who is, of course, called Cossette.
Slowly at first, and then more rapidly once ordered to abandon the case, he tracks the clues that will reveal the larger truth behind what appears at first to be a cold-blooded, professional killing.
Melchor moved from the violence of the city to the quiet of a rural town. But violence seems to have caught up with him when the bodies of a local couple are found, brutally murdered. It appears that the couple may have been the victims of a professional killing. The question is not only who killed them but who hired the killers and why? As the investigation progresses it becomes apparent that the darkness Melchor thought he had left behind has caught up with him and finding this killer could send him over the edge.
I picked up this book to have a little look and soon found myself drawn into Melchor’s world. There was something the spurred me on to read more and I’m glad I did. Moving from present day and the murder investigation the reader is also taken back into Melchor’s past, from his childhood to his days in prison, to his mother’s murder and his drive to avenge her death.
The book is very dark. The murders are gruesome and particularly cruel. Melchor is a dark character, a product of his upbringing, motivated to throw off his criminal past and become a detective so he can find his mother’s murderer. Their relationship was a strange one, she a prostitute, he not knowing who his father was and knowing he could not save his mother from the streets. He is not above stepping over boundaries and breaking laws, and bones, if he feels it will help his aims. When victims of domestic abuse crossed his path, the abusers would often find themselves the victim of an attack by an unknown assailant soon after. His criminal record is expunged early so he join the police. He is detached when it comes to shooting people, finds it hard to make friends and is shocked that he has found love in this little town.
There’s something about small town murder mysteries that have a lasting appeal. It could be the close group of potential suspects. It could be that there are few strangers so personal relationships get stretched out of shape. Or it could be because small towns don’t expect violence. are seemingly quiet and innocuous but always have secrets hidden away behind closed doors. The small town setting works well here. Melchor has come across little violent crime since he moved here, away from the fall out of a terrorist attack in the city. He thought he would struggle without the noise and bustle but has learned to start again and find a quiet side of himself he didn’t know he possessed. When the murders occur shockwaves ripple through the residents, recalling the bloodshed that happened close by during the civil war. Anyone could be a suspect but surely no one could have carried out the killings.
The translation is well done. There were moments when I was unsure whether a particularly English turn of phrase would have been used in Spanish but other than that I often forgot I was reading a translation, which is after all the sign that it has been done correctly.
The mystery itself is engaging. There are a finite number of suspects so it makes it easier to narrow down the culprit but the darkness is maintained even to the final page. But like even after the darkest night, there is a sliver of light at the end for Melchor. After all he has been through he looks set to grasp it.
A dark, engaging read and the start to what I hope is a long series. I look forward to reading more by Javier Cercas soon.