Tag Archives: Spain

Chills in Barcelona

Destination: Barcelona Spain

Book: The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill. (New June 2014)

This novel follows one I reviewed recently, Summer of Dead Toys. In fact, Summer of  Dead Toys ended with a teaser to lead you to this book. I found the teaser irresistible. Of course the books can be read in any order, but I like following the progression of a detective’s personal life as it unfolds in a series by reading the earlier ones first.

In The Good Suicides, we puzzle with Antonio Hill  over whether there can be a “good” suicide, what can drive a person to the point of suicide, and when what looks like a suicide may actually be a murder. Group dynamics play a large part in this story and so we wonder about the effect of being part of a group. And of course suspense builds as we wonder if there will be more victims. Hill, a psychologist, brings his knowledge into play not only in developing characters, but also in knowing how to interest us.

Most of this plays out in a city popular with travelers–Barcelona. As a traveler who reads, you’ll learn quite a bit about the culture of modern day Spain.

Antonio Hill changes up the main characters a bit in his second novel, The Good Suicides. Barcelona Policeman Héctor Salgado is off probation and back on the job, although ordered not to pursue the disappearance of his ex-wife, Ruth. His young partner Leire is supposed to be on maternity leave, but she is itching to get back to work, and “unofficially” picks up the investigation of Ruth’s absence. This necessitates the introduction of another female police officer, Martina Andreu.

Winter in Barcelona
Winter in Barcelona Photo by Daniel Julià Lundgren, from Flickr.

The other change I enjoyed was in climate.  If you read the review, or the book, Summer of Dead Toys, you may remember that the sultry heat of Barcelona summer established an atmosphere that added to the drama.  The Good Suicides takes place in Barcelona’s winter, and instead of seeking shade, the characters are wanting to be inside with a cup of hot coffee. The shivers are not all metaphorical.

Hill’s use of weather to establish mood and believability reminds me of the emphasis on weather in the four books of the Copenhagen Quartet by Thomas E. Kennedy.  [No wonder I'm thinking about Kennedy's work--his final book in the Copenhagen Quartet, Beneath the Neon Egg, is the subject of the next review you can read here at A Traveler's Library.]

Antonio Hill’s work is full of delightful turns of phrase that seem totally perfect–and totally unique. For instance this description of a place:

Empty apartments are like actresses in decline, thought Leire. Well kept, always awaiting the arrival of the person who gives them meaning so that they can once again become welcoming, lively spaces, they never manage to shake off a dusty, rancid air, an aspect of assumed neglect that repels rather than attracts.

Road in Spain

“Sotres Panorama” by Mick Stephenson mixpix.Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SotresPanorama.jpg#mediaviewer/File:SotresPanorama.jpg

And this one of action as detectives drive into the mountains:

Lola clung to the door handle as the car stumbled along, nervous, faster than the terrain permitted.

Ever think of your car as nervous before?

I was also impressed by the author’s thumbnail sketches of the people in this novel, even those who served only as background to the story, like this in a bar.

While they were talking, the young customer had decided to leave the virtual world and return to his true occupation, that of a tourist, and the waitress was still standing motionless behind the bar, less beautiful than she believed herself to be.

Another person–this time a main character.

She had lovely dark hair and a tense expression, but it was precisely that expression which rendered her neutral features, too correct to be beautiful, attractive.  Mar Ródenas, like her brother, belonged to the immense group of people neither handsome nor ugly. They lack intensity, Ruth always used to say…

While I truly enjoyed reading Antonio Hill’s fresh metaphors and was impressed by his skills of observation, I do have one complaint about his characters. There are so many of them, and he has not found a way to remind the reader who someone is when they re-enter the book after an absence. I frequently got lost, and had to backtrack to remind myself who I was reading about.

The structure of the novel leads to this problem, since it is arranged in sections that focus on specific characters, who generally return to play a role in the section focusing on someone else.

The plot is complex.  It starts simply enough with a woman’s body discovered on the Metro tracks–an apparent suicide.  But digging into the death, Héctor discovers that there was another suicide among workers in the company where this woman is employed as a personal assistant.  It is difficult to believe that two suicides in such a short time are a coincidence. And more people will die.

From there, he explores the dynamics of the cosmetics company, headed by a brother and sister, until he teases out the complicated relationships and the causes for suicides. And/or murders.

Meanwhile in another thread, Leire is trying to figure out what happened to the missing Ruth as the pregnant cop gets closer and closer to the time for her delivery.

The Good Suicides (a bit of a stretch for a title) impressed me as much as Hill’s first book. And guess what? Once again, the book ends with a teaser to lure you into book number three.

I am not going to repeat everything that I said about the author’s background and about Barcelona. You can look back at the review of Summer of Dead Toys for that information. I will just add that it seems to be a tradition that second books are a disappointment. That is definitely not the case with The Good Suicides.  I think readers and Antonio Hill have a long and happy relationship in front of them.

Notes: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review. My opinions, nevertheless are always my own.

If you use the links to Amazon that I have provided, you should know that although it costs you no more, I make a few cents whenever you shop through those links.  Thanks for supporting A Travelers Library.

Murder in Barcelona, A Cerebral Mystery

A Month of Mystery Goes to HOT Barcelona

Destination: Barcelona, Spain

Book: The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio HIll

Summer is oppressive in Barcelona. Living in Tucson, I can relate. People in The Summer of Dead Toys, a  polished first novel by Antonio Hill,  seek shade, cold drinks, and air-conditioned interiors where their brains can function. And functioning brains are required in this very cerebral mystery.

The blurbs describe it as a “thriller”, but I’ve learned to treat that description with skepticism.  The Summer of Dead Toys is not the Stephen King, edge-of-your-seat novel that makes you glance over your shoulder periodically as you read it. It does, however, deal with a ruthless and cunning killer pitted against dogged and brilliant police work. And since several scenes take place on the beach–voila!–a beach read.

Héctor, an outstanding police detective, has been put on probation because he lost control and beat up on a figure suspected in a sex-trafficking business. His wife left him for a woman. He has a teenage son he sees too infrequently, and a troubled past.  He is not delighted when assigned to take a preemptroy look at the (perhaps) suicide of a teen boy from an upper class Barcelona family just to calm the mother. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed?

Barcelona balcony
Barcelona balcony

The policeman’s partner in the case is a new female officer, Leire, whom he tends to treat as non-existant. However, she has a mind of her own and between the two of them, they uncover something much more complex  than the original story of a teen boy accidentally or purposefully falling from a third-story window.

The novel is up-to-the-minute with lots of text messaging, unconventional couples and family arrangements, smoking bans, and frequent references to movies, actors and directors, modern and classical. (Salgado is a cinema fan.) For the traveler, the novel provides an interesting look at various neighborhoods of Barcelona and an introduction to real culture there, with nary a mention of Gaudi. Travelers heading to Barcelona can get find 100 reasons to visit Barcelona at the Tourism page.

Barcelona street scene
Barcelona street scene

Hill writes deliciously evocative prose. Here, Joana, the mother of the dead boy, divorced from the father and completely estranged from her son before he died, is living  in an old family aparment.

The balcony was the border between two worlds: on one side Astûrias, the heart of the barrio of Gràcia, now converted into a pedestrian street where boisterous people dressed in vivid colors–red, green, sky-blue–were wallking; on the other, the flat, faded by the years, with walls once an ivory color now appearing grayish.  She had only to raise the blind, allow the light to flood the interior, mix the living with the dead.

Salgado observes the difference in the city beach of Barcelona in the winter:

…they weren’t at all heavenly or relaxing, but catwalks with disco music on which wannabe models show an intense bronze, with bouncing boobs and gymnastic abs.  Sometimes he got the impression that they held casing calls before alowing them access to the beach.

On the Barcelona Beach in summer.
On the Barcelona Beach in winter.

And in the summer:

Round here, the city in the summer acquired the air of a Californian television series, with the manteros–blanket sellers–providing an ethnic touch.  There were even those who tried to surf in a sea without waves.

I have rarely seen an author who uses the weather to such advantage.  He describes it through the way it affects the characters and their smallest actions as well as larger plot turns.

After the previous day’s rain, the sun was taking revenge, beating down mercilessly on the city since the early morning….This fiery sun blazing onto the streets that kept her sweaty and bad-tempered all day long.  She poured herself a glass of cold water from the jug and drank it in little sips, carefully, and then turned off the radio that was in the kitchen. Even music made her feel hot.

 Antonio Hill has worked in Barcelona as a translator, putting Spanish works into English readers’ hands, for many years.  Those years of delving into the style and word-choices of a variety of writers , along with formal training in psychology, provided him a perfect education, it seems, for launching his own series. Yes, The Summer of Dead Toys will be followed in August by the second book to feature the progagonist Héctor Salgado. And we’ll be talking about that book, too, partly because of a very clever little cliff hanger.  At the end, when the varous mysteries of the Barcelona summer are all wrapped up and Héctor is about to get back to his normal life–a major character in that life disappears.  [I also just learned that a third novel is already finished.]

While there are dozens of designations for various kinds of mystery novels–cozy, historic, thriller, police procedural, legal or medical, forensic, suspense, noir, romantic, and more–this one, like those by Robert Wilson and a few other novelists deserve a new designation–the cerebral mystery. If you enjoy solving challenging puzzles, this is your kind of mystery.

If you want to follow a Barcelona map of the neighborhoods Hill mentions in the book, check the Neighborhood page of the tourism site.

For instance:

  • You’ll find Salgado’s home district of Poblenou listed under Sant Marti.
  • The police station is in Plaςa Espanya.
  • Joana’s apartment in barrio Gràcia.
  • Hill mentions the rejuvenated, popular neighborhood El Born.

And there are many more neighborhoods and streets mentioned in the book.

Two books and a movie set in Barcelona that have been reviewed at A Traveler’s Library:

Mystery/ Thriller

Violent Thriller

A Woody Allen Film

Note: The book was provided by the publisher for review, with no requirements on what I have to say.  Links to Amazon earn a few cents to support A Traveler’s Library, even though it costs you no more to shop through our links. Thanks for your help! Photos are used with Creative Commons license, and obtained through Flickr. Click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.

 

Robert Wilson Finds Murder and Mayhem in London Thriller

Book Cover: Capital Punishment

 

Destination: London

Book: Capital Punishment, by Robert Wilson. 2013

 

Watch out London!  Robert Wilson has unloosed his awesome research to uncover the deepest, darkest vilest secrets of your grand city.  In Capital Punishment, a London thriller, his new hero, Charles Boxer, freelances for a firm that specializes in negotiating with kidnappers. The trail of the current case leads to India and Pakistan as he tracks down the missing daughter of an Indian film star/entrepreneur/investor with some shady connections.

London Thriller setting
Security Cameras everywhere in London. Photo by Sam Burnett

Like Wilson’s other books– set in Portugal and Madrid, Spain (Reviewed here: A Small Death in Lisbon; The Hidden Assassins 2006; The Blind Man of Seville, 2003) the complications are Byzantine in their twists and turns. The number of characters can be staggering.

I have to agree with a reviewer on Amazon who complained that in the middle of Capital Punishment, a bunch of new characters drop in out of seeming nowhere.  In the last third of the book, Wilson does a good job of keeping the reader up to speed on who’s who, so stick with him through the slightly baffling middle third, and you’ll find that the seemingly random assortment of players in the London thriller makes sense.

I think the complexity of Wilson’s novels focuses the reader’s attention on the fact that it isn’t just our everyday world that has become more complex and influenced by international forces–but the darker world of crime as well.

While “whodunit” definitely keeps the plot moving here, the underlying question of motivation provides the deeper meaning to the book.  Is it terrorism? Is it personal revenge against an amoral, if not immoral, businessman? Is it love? Is it the conflict between India and Pakistan?  Is it a struggle for International power between rival gangs of thugs? Even a London thriller may be motivated by forces far away.

Wilson was a finalist for the Steel Dagger award for thrillers for Capital Punishment, but didn’t win. He had previously won the Golden Dagger for A Small Death in Lisbon.  Who knows what the judges are looking for? I certainly don’t.  I can only tell you what is similar and what is different about Capital Punishment compared to other Wilson books.

LOCATION

Wilson once again anchors his story in a very specific location, which he has said is very important to him.  In an e-mail discussing his Spain books, he told me, “It is only by seeing a place and feeling its atmosphere and breathing its air and smells and watching its people that a novel starts to germinate in my mind.” However, instead of sticking  with London, this story wanders into India and Pakistan. Since those locations are, as it were, supporting players, we don’t get as detailed a picture of them. And while we get lots of names of neighborhoods and streets and bus lines in Capital Punishment, I didn’t feel immersed in the culture as I was when I read his novels set in Spain and Portugal.

London Thriller view of Thames
The Thames at night. Photo by Sam Burnett

STRUCTURE

Unlike his other books, that segue between two very separate time periods, this book is more linear in its development, which is neither negative or positive–it just is. Some readers have objected to the extreme violence found in Wilson’s earlier books. Although there are still some characters who take lives with no more thought than taking a Tylenol, I didn’t think the London thriller was nearly as bloody as the prior books.  That will please some readers and dismay others, I suppose.

Man walking in London. Photo by Stu Mayhew
Man walking in London. Photo by Stu Mayhew

CHARACTERS

Finally, my only reservation about this book.  While I thoroughly fell in love with Falcón,  the detective in the Madrid series despite all his neuroses and struggles with commitment, I came away feeling nothing for Charles Boxer.  The mother of the kidnap victim was more interesting. The various bad guys were more interesting. His African ex-wife who is now a cop was infinitely more interesting. Heck, the kidnap victim was fascinating–and could star in her own series.

But Boxer? Whether because of his need to partially hide himself as he played his role as negotiator, or because of British reserve–I never got a real handle on his personality. I certainly was not left salivating to read more episodes of his life–unless they continue to feature the mother  and the kidnapped daughter and/or his African ex-wife.

Having stated my gripes, however, Robert Wilson remains my favorite contemporary thriller/mystery writer.  I recommend Capital Punishment to you if you like a mystery with a bit of intellectual challenge.  And, despite my misgivings, I will be in line to read the next in the Boxer series, because Wilson being Wilson, I think he’ll find some of the missing notes from the first book.

Note:  Wilson also wrote a series of books set in Africa, where he lived for a time.  I don’t mention them only because I have not read them.  I found it interesting that Portugal, his current home, gets its moment in the current book, and there’s an echo of Africa in the backstory of Boxer’s ex-wife.

 

The publisher provided me with a copy of the book, which you can purchase at Amazon as hardback, paperback or in e-reader version.  I am an affiliate of Amazon, so if you choose to get there through links on this site, you’re supporting A Traveler’s Library. It costs you no more, so why not? Thanks.