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.


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.