The Spanish Riveter: Teresa Solana’s Terrible Twins by Nick Caistor

Sea, sun, sand, sex … and murder. Barcelona has it all, and has often provided the backdrop for thrillers and detective stories, most recently in the many books by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and his unorthodox detective Pepe Carvalho. Since Vázquez Montalbán’s untimely death in 2003, the Catalan writer Teresa Solana has continued the tradition, above all in her trilogy featuring the twins Borja and Eduard.

Solana’s novels mainly explore the neighbourhoods north of the Avenida Diagonal, which, as its name suggests, cuts Barcelona in two. Her characters are at home in barrios such as Sarrià and Bonanova, where the ‘well heeled’ live, even if her wealthy, pretentious characters occasionally dip down to the Port Olimpic on the seafront to see and be seen.

It is in these more salubrious parts of Barcelona that her pair of unlikely detectives find their clients, and stumble on crimes committed in the city’s high society. Solana’s seemingly hapless twin brothers are a long way from the hard-boiled private investigators of novels by writers like Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (or Vázquez Montalbán himself) where tough, world-weary investigators scour the mean streets. In Solana’s there are no guns, a minimum of violence (apart from a shootout with the Russian mafia in the third book of the trilogy, The Sound of One Hand Killing), and a perhaps surprising compassion towards the perpetrators of the crimes.

In fact, Eduard Martínez, who narrates the stories, insists that he and his brother are not really detectives at all. They run a dubious agency normally dealing with marital infidelities and the like, operating out of one room – the mahogany doors suggesting they have a much bigger suite of offices are fake, built into the wall. Nor do they employ anyone else – they pretend to have a secretary, announcing her presence by spraying perfume in the room whenever a client comes to call.

Borja, whose real name is Josep or Pep, is a fantasist who has invented an entire aristocratic lineage (calling himself Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga). He likes to portray himself as a rich playboy, which enables him to fit more smoothly in the wealthy world of their clients. His brother Eduard is the realist, describing himself as a ‘hesitant, shrinking violet’ who sees his twin as ‘the capricious, daring type’.

Eduard has a wife, who runs the Alternative Centre for Natural Wellbeing, twin teenage daughters and a young son. The brothers are more Don Quixote and Sancho Panza than Holmes and Watson (although Solana often references the latter two in the novels). But despite their differences, they are both basically on the side of good, and their contrasting methods somehow gel to help them resolve the crimes they are hired to investigate.

It’s often said that thrillers are one of the best ways of commenting on the society they portray, and one of the great pleasures of Solana’s trilogy is the way she uses the tropes from crime novels to satirise aspects of life in the Catalan capital in the early years of this century. As she has written: ‘The noir genre is art, it is fiction, and readers know it, and that is why they enter into the game of a parallel world in which the tragedy of a crime becomes aesthetic enjoyment. Good literature should not compete with reality, but rewrite it. In this respect, a good crime novel is much more than a mere account of a crime and an investigation; it allows us to reflect on the human condition and on the world from the imposed distance of fiction’.

In the first book of the series, A Not So Perfect Crime (first published in English in 2008 by Bitter Lemon Press), it is the corrupt world of local politicians that comes under her microscope. The twins are hired by a politician Lluis Font, described as ‘one who liked to hold forth, hog the headlines and appear in football chat shows’. Font suspects his wife Lidia of being unfaithful with an artist who has painted her portrait (although it turns out that he is the one who is involved with someone else). The brothers manage to extract a comforting amount of money from him for doing very little, but events take a more serious turn when Lidia is found dead after eating a poisoned marron glacé. With a nod to Agatha Christie, the list of suspects are gradually whittled down, until the twins finally confront the murderer, with surprising results.

The second book, A Shortcut to Paradise (Bitter Lemon Press, 2011) casts a jaundiced (and very funny) eye on the Catalan literary scene, when the brothers are called in to investigate the killing of bestselling author Marina Dolç, who literally gets it in the neck from the Golden Apple statue that she won as a prize. Solana’s description of the petty rivalries between authors is hilarious: ‘Your books are the real shite! They’re only good for wiping your arse on. It’s you people who queer the pitch for us true writers!’ one of them declares during an evening of homage to their murdered colleague.

In the third and as yet final book featuring the twins, The Sound of One Hand Killing (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) it is the alternative-medicine industry and specifically Bach flower remedies that is at the heart of the intrigue, although in this novel Solana indulges in even more adventurous playfulness, as it also involves a CIA spy and the trafficking of stolen antiquities. Borja and Eduard are contracted by a writer called Teresa Solana to research the lucrative world of yoga, meditation and quack remedies. This leads them to a clinic run by a Doctor Horaci Boi and an array of clients, including Alicia, who has self-diagnosed herself as having cancer, and decides to commit suicide when she discovers the doctor she idolises has another love interest. She takes two hundred of the homeopathic pills Doctor Boi has prescribed for her, but survives, leaving her to reflect ruefully: ‘How can medicine cure you, if it doesn’t kill you when you take an overdose?’ As in the previous books, the comedy becomes much darker when the doctor is found murdered, and once again the obvious line-up of suspects is narrowed down to one, although not before the twins have gone through various hair-raising escapades, and the epilogue with the enigmatic Lord Ashtray suggests they may face even greater problems in the future.

Teresa Solana began her professional career as a translator, and for seven years ran the Spanish National Translation Centre in Tarazona (which also features in The Sound of One Hand Killing). She translates her own novels from Catalan into Spanish, and appears to have found the ideal translator of her work into English – her husband, Peter Bush. Translating from the original Catalan, throughout he provides an agile, convincing version of the novels that succeeds in capturing the knockabout aspects of their humour as well as remaining faithful to the different styles of thriller writing.

Solana has written another trilogy, this time featuring the Barcelona police inspector Norma Forester (these have not so far appeared in English). All her books strike an entertaining balance between spoof detective stories and the dissection of the comic absurdities of contemporary Barcelona society. One of the most interesting aspects of Solana’s books, though, is her refusal to judge: the people responsible for the murders are not necessarily brought to justice, and as she has said in interview when asked if her books were ‘an apology for murder’: nothing in this life is ever black and white, but is more a kaleidoscope of many shades of grey. (Now there’s a good title for a book). 

Nick Caistor

A Not So Perfect Crime, translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2008 

A Short Cut to Paradise, translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2011

The Sound of One Hand Killing, translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2013

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.

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