Oh my! Antonio Hill's The Summer of Dead Toys (Verano de los juguetes muertos, translated from Spanish by Laura McGloughlin) is quite a ride! If this is his first book, he has set the bar quite high for himself for any others to follow. I turned the last page hugely impressed by his feat at pulling off such an intricately plotted, well written (and translated) crime thriller. To anyone who might look down their noses at the genre of crime fiction, they've obviously not read Antonio Hill.
Life is sometimes a messy endeavor. Some lives are messier than others and the lives of the characters populating crime novels are usually the messiest of all. What's a little curious is that often the lives of the detectives aren't necessarily much more exemplary than those of the criminals. All that crime and dirtiness must rub off on occasion I suspect. Inspector Héctor Salgado is a native Argentine who has lived in Barcelona for many years, but after assaulting one of the suspects in a case he had been working on previously he was sent back to Argentina on an enforced leave of absence.
Don't get me wrong, Héctor is not a dirty cop, if anything he's quite likable and cares too much about those around him, but he had been so immersed in a case of human trafficking involving a particularly nasty death of a young African girl that his anger got the better of him and he beat one of the men involved. Dr. Omar fashions himself as a healer but if anything he is simply a quack who plays at voodoo, running a squalid clinic tending to illegal immigrants--all a front for importing young women to be sold as slaves in Europe. Omar's a nasty piece of work and mocks Salgado with the death of this young girl prompting him to react physically when normally he tends towards saying as little as possible and keeping his cards close to his chest.
"He couldn't even manage to repent: the blows he'd showered on Omar seemed to him just and deserved. It was as if the serious Inspector Salgado had regressed to his youth in a Buenos Aires barrio, when disagreements were resolved by punching each other to shit at the school gates. When you'd go home with a split lip but say you'd been hit in the face playing football."
And everything begins crumbling around him.
Upon his return to Barcelona Héctor must deal with charges being pressed against him but the affair becomes particularly complicated when Omar goes missing, his office splattered with blood and a pig's head left on his desk. It looks like a matter of revenge with Inspector Salgado as the main suspect. Once again he must lie low while Omar is found, but his boss asks him to do a little legwork on an unrelated case--a way for him to be of use while the other business is cleared up. A student has fallen to his death from an apartment window where he often would sit and have a final smoke for the day. It's likely a simple case of accidental death or perhaps he committed suicide. In order to appease the mother of the young man who refuses to believe he killed himself, Héctor is asked to look into the matter--question his family and friends and then quietly close the case. He's paired with Leire Castro a rookie detective who's independently minded and hoping to make a good first impression. She's clever with a 'natural talent' for investigation, a love 'em and leave 'em sort of woman and fearless in her ambitions.
Of course nothing is ever simple and their inquiries lead to more unanswerable questions that only muddy the waters rather than clear things up so the case can be tidied away. And then another death, what appears to be yet another suicide complicates things further. The families involved are wealthy and well respected and of course have their own secrets that they'd rather keep well buried in the past. But it's past events that threaten to rear up and expose a crime long tucked away that set into motion all that follows.
This is a twisty turny sort of a story and the reader must do a little work for their rewards but it is a story that is rewarding and quite satisfying to read. The action takes place over the course of about a week or a little less, and while it builds slowly and simmers in the telling, it is quite engrossing, too. I've seen it described as a Mediterranean Noir which puts me in mind of another very excellent crime novel, Jean-Claude Izzo's Total Chaos, which was a favorite read last year.
Antonio Hill lives in Barcelona and he writes about the city with an insider's view, and while the details are subtle you can't but help feel the sultriness of a Barcelona summer. I wonder if Hill's work as a translator of English-language works into Spanish has helped inform his own writing. I've heard that translation work is really almost like rewriting a novel. Imagine trying to capture those nuances of a language and culture. This story is so tightly woven, that even two seemingly disparate plotlines, two different cases feel completely meshed together since each concerns Inspector Salgado in some way. He is both investigator and investigated and so two sides of the same man is presented. Now I want to know more about Salgado and about his counterpart Leire, who I think will make a most interesting character and partner to the Inspector. Although the crime is solved there are enough loose ends of a personal kind that make this story into something of a cliffhanger.
Hill's second novel, The Good Suicides, is out now, and I will be getting my hands on a copy as soon as I can. A complex, nuanced and intricately plotted story with interesting characters who are both well developed and likable . . . just how I like my crime fiction.
Please, write on Mr. Hill!
Thanks to Blogging for Books for sending this one my way.