The Spanish Riveter: Crime under Spanish Skies by Barry Forshaw

The crime fiction of the Iberian Peninsula has acquired a distinctive character over the decades, fashioning sometimes quirky Spanish variations on the standard police procedural format. The local approach to the genre might be said to have had its gestation in the nineteenth century, but it achieved one of its most characteristic developments in what was dubbed the ‘novela negra’ movement of the 1970s. The key authorial name in this era was Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose examination of the socio-political aspects of society added a considerable gravitas and commitment to the crime-fiction form. Subsequent developments included a marked feminist perspective in crime novels of the 1980s and 1990s, while Catalan andBasque strands in the genre addressed issues of regional nationalism.

The growth in Spanish crime talent has been propelled by such idiosyncratic and highly influential writers as Montalbán and Domingo Villar, but emblematic of the genre’s current rude health (although relatively few writers work within it) is the talented crime novelist Toni Hill, who gave me his thoughts on the development of the genre:

‘Spanish crime authors, as a breed, are not exactly thick on the ground … Or at least not so many that could legitimately be called “crime” authors from an Anglo-Saxon point of view. Let me elaborate a little bit: perhaps due to certain prejudices against crime novels (psychological thrillers and especially police procedurals), what you call “crime” in England is called in Spain “novela negra” (a version of the French idea of “roman noir”). The result is that many “noir” authors here approach the genre from a social perspective: many stories about losers, “marginals”, etc. And most of them are written in a style that pretends to be – and sometimes is – more self-consciously literary than the usual standard. I am not saying that crime novels cannot be stylishly written, but I bet you know what I mean! And most of them have only reluctantly accepted the idea of being filed under the label of “noir” recently; significantly, after the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson. Of course, all these prejudices are being eroded, and in a few years there will probably be more authors prepared to be perceived as writers of pure crime fiction. In fact, there are some new names who don’t feel self-conscious at all defending the once-undervalued “crime” genre.’

‘Crime fiction in Spain must be seen from a different perspective than in other European countries or in North America … Franco’s dictatorship – which lasted, remember, for almost forty years, from 1939 to 1975 – made it very difficult to write fiction with crime elements. Why? Well, perhaps for reasons that had to do with a national concept of morality and also – let’s face it – with the unlikely choice (in that era) of a policeman as a hero. Back then, the police and army were loyal forces, symbols of the dictator and the totalitarian establishment, and they worked, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, as ruthless repressors, putting down any hint of rebellion against the government. Of course, nobody could write about their methods, which routinely included torture, beatings, etc. The mere mention in any narrative of police corruption, so endemic in US noir from Chandler and Hammett onwards, or suggestions that social differences could cause or even justify (at least psychologically) any sort of crime was unthinkable. The prevailing notion had to be like Stalin’s Russia or today’s North Korea: “Spanish people were all blissfully happy, and criminals were aberrations, bad guys who had to be deservedly punished by the all-knowing state.” All novels (and films) from Spain – or foreign films we saw – had to be filleted by draconian censorship, moral guardians from some government office or the Catholic Church (perfect arbiters of course, of what the rest of us should see or hear) who stamped the product as “good” or “bad”, erased offending paragraphs from novels and cut any but the most anodyne scenes in movies. It was a dark time.’

Despite Hill’s reservations, some remarkable novelists have thrived in Spain, and I present here a selection of the best: 

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939–2003) is probably the Spanish crime writer best known abroad. His protagonist, Pepe Carvalho, is an ex-member of the Communist Party and also, ironically, an agent of the CIA. A disillusioned figure and a gastronome, his first appearance was in the novel I Killed Kennedy in 1972, in which he was a bodyguard, but Montalbán really found his form with Tattoo, published two years later. Some consider that the two finest books are the Barcelona-set Galíndez (1992) and The Loneliness of the Manager (2000), but a favourite of British readers is Murder in the Central Committee (1982).

Francisco González Ledesma is a classic case of an important author frustrated by censorship. At twenty-one he received an award for his novel Old Shadows, but the book was not published; censorship bodies labelled Ledesma as a ‘communist’ and ‘pornographer’, which forced him to stop writing for a while, at least under his own name. Finally, in the 1980s, his novel Expediente Barcelona was published in France. The writer had a huge success there – bigger, in fact, than in Spain. His crime novels feature Inspector Ricardo Méndez and are typical police procedurals. Despite his considerable age and poor health, Ledesma published his last novel in 2013, Worse Ways to Die. All of his Méndez novels are set in Barcelona.

Juan Madrid was strongly influenced by Chandler, Hammett and co., and set his novels in the Madrid of the 1980s. His series features Toni Romano, an ex-boxer and ex-policeman, who is something of a loser but who undertakes investigations while he works for a company specialising in forcing debtors to pay up. However, what may be his best novel does not belong to the series: Numbered Days (1993) concerns a photographer in the Madrid of the 1990s, where drugs have decisively ended the halcyon period of the previous decade.

Alicia Giménez Bartlett (born 1951) is the creator of the first important female character in Spanish crime fiction: Inspector Petra Delicado. Bartlett has had great success and even gleaned the Raymond Chandler Award (Death Rites is a key novel).

Eugenio Fuentes was born in Montehermoso, Cáceres, in 1958. His work lays bare a clandestine Spain, where alibis matter less than a dark and desolate description of the human condition.

The Spanish crime scene remains lively, as evinced by Even the Darkest Night by Javier Cercas. The author made his mark with intricately constructed novels such as Soldiers of Salamis, but his move to the detective story is remarkably effective, with urban policeman Melchor Marín relocating to the sedate backwater of Terra Alta only to become involved in the investigation of a savage crime with tendrils extending back to Spain’s Civil War.

Similarly impressive is Juan Gómez-Jurado, an award-winning journalist who is a notable star of the contemporary Spanish crime genre, along with Javier Sierra and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Gómez-Jurado’s protagonist is Antonia Scott, daughter of a British diplomat and a Spanish mother who has an IQ of 242, which comes in useful when encountering grim criminality. A vein of black humour is set against the machine-tooled plotting.

With writers such as these contributing to the contemporary genre, the Spanish crime field is clearly on something of a roll at the moment. Hopefully, the British public will ultimately become aware of the riches on offer from the Iberian Peninsula.

Barry Forshaw

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

Category: The Spanish RiveterThe RiveterBlogs


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *