Domingo Villar's Death on a Galician Shore is one of the better mysteries I've read in a while. Spanish author Villar has (sadly) yet to be published...moreDomingo Villar's Death on a Galician Shore is one of the better mysteries I've read in a while. Spanish author Villar has (sadly) yet to be published in the US and it was only by chance that I came across it whilst perusing the list of possible titles to be considered for the CWA International Dagger Award on the Euro Crime blog, which by the way I should mention as it is one of the best resources for crime fiction I've come across. I usually prefer to read mysteries in order, but I was able to get it from Amazon as a Kindle ebook through my library, so this was an interesting reading experience for me all around.
Galicia is in the upper northwest corner of Spain just above Portugal, and if you do a search on Google for images (go ahead and do it, I'll wait, you'll appreciate the visuals), you might, much like myself, wish you could immediately board a plane and travel there. When I searched for the title to find a description of the story I was taken with the cover illustration--slightly broody which brought windswept images to my mind. A lone figure standing by a beached boat with dark clouds looming overhead made me think I was in for a nice atmospheric read, and I found that to be very much the case.
Leo Caldas is a detective inspector in the city of Vigo on the Atlantic coast. He's a curious man, and had I read the first book, I might have a better handle on him, but it was interesting trying to sort out his personality as the story progressed. I picture him as perhaps middle age, in his 40s. He lives alone, as his former lover, Alba, has left him. I'm unsure of the circumstances, however he seems a little lonely. His father is retired and runs a winery, but I get the impression Leo spends less time with him than his father would like. Leo smokes too much, has a fondness for fine food and gets queasy in boats and cars, but when it comes to investigating murders he's observant and quite practical in his mode of working.
It's not unusual for bodies to wash ashore, and even a body with hands tied together isn't necessarily cause for alarm. More often than not it's a suicide, so when a body is found washed ashore in the small fishing village of Panxón, it's first assumed foul play isn't involved. When the pathologist notes that the plastic tie holding the hands together is turned in such a way that the man couldn't have tied it himself, Inspector Caldas and his partner Rafa Estevez set off for Panxón to investigate.
The victim is a local fisherman who spent his free time tinkering in his shed or visiting his mother and sister. Mostly he was a loner who kept to himself with no friends and more importantly no known enemies. He was last seen setting off in his boat on a Sunday morning, normally a day for rest when no fishing is allowed. Several days later he was found with a blow to the back of the head, bruised and with a packet of salt in his pocket and his boat nowhere to be found.
There are few leads and the case has little momentum. Leo learns that a small rowing boat of the fisherman had recently been grafittied with the word "murderers" and a date, but as is so often the case in a small town no one is forthcoming as to what it all means. Ten years previously the murdered man had been in an accident during a storm. The captain drowned, but the three crew members donned life jackets and were able to safely swim to shore. Now there's talk in the village that the captain has been sighted once more. Is it a ghost, or did the captain not die?
The mystery is twisty and turny, and it's through questioning and piecing together bits of information that Leo is able to sort through what's fact and what's fiction. This is the sort of mystery where all the evidence is set before the reader with a fair few red herrings thrown in, but I still found myself surprised more than once. Inspector Caldas is an interesting character and Rafa his sidekick, not a native Galician by the way, somewhat quirky. Rafa has little patience for the laid back way of doing things in Galicia and less for the vagueness that plagues conversation there. He's more a man of action, even if that means smacking a witness or breaking down a door much to Leo's chagrin. Needless to say Leo does his best to rein him in, but the two make for an appealing pair.
Although the mystery is fairly simply told, it's everything else that makes this such an enjoyable read. Apparently Vigo's climate is comparable to that of the Pacific Northwest, so mild and rainy. I couldn't help but think what a perfect crime setting this was as I was reading. Throw together interesting characters with room to develop and a small village with suspicious locals who spit every time a dead sea captain is mentioned, and for me anyway, I thought it had all the right ingredients for a very successful story. A note on the translation--it's translated from the Spanish by Sonia Soto, who did an excellent job. Often with books translated from another language, it's very obvious the book has been translated. The prose feels clunky and dialogue stilted, but Soto's translation felt seamless. The only thing that felt foreign was the setting, which was as it should be--not the language. Happily Villar's first book, Water-Blue Eyes, is available (in book format!) from Amazon (published by the small independent UK publisher Arcadia Books), and it is even now winging its way to me.(less)
Loved this, though difficult emotionally at times.
I don't know much about Ernest Hemingway and even less about any of his wives. Perhaps that's just...moreLoved this, though difficult emotionally at times.
I don't know much about Ernest Hemingway and even less about any of his wives. Perhaps that's just as well as with some authors their reputation precedes them, and when the reputation isn't always a particularly favorable one the less said the better, it seems. My perspective has shifted ever so slightly since I finished reading Paula McLain's very excellent Paris Wife, which is a fictional biography of sorts about Hemingway's first wife Hadley Richardson and their life together in 1920s Paris. I had little knowledge and few expectations going into this book, so perhaps this has helped in forming my opinions. I still don't know a lot about either Ernest or Hadley, though it seems as though McLain tried to paint an accurate portrait of both individuals. I don't think she glosses over their behavior or shortcomings yet she doesn't exactly condemn their actions either. It seems as though she tries to simply present the facts of their lives paying special attention to what they might have been feeling emotionally during their short marriage.
Hadley Richardson was a very average young American woman when she met Ernest. She had a fairly conventional upbringing in St. Louis, though her mother was very protective of her after a childhood accident. She met Ernest when she was visiting a friend in Chicago. Several years her junior, Ernest was full of life and energy and Hadley felt an immediate attraction. Hemingway had served in Italy during WWI as an ambulance driver but was injured and invalided out. He was working as a reporter when he met Hadley and the two corresponded after her return home. Despite concerns of family members they married a year later in 1921, living for a while in Chicago and then moving to Paris at the suggestion of Hemingway's mentor Sherwood Anderson.
I think Hadley must have been Hemingway's muse. She was immensely supportive of his work and didn't shy away from trying anything he had an interest in. The two became part of the expatriate community that included Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Other than his journalistic work he hadn't been published and was struggling to find his own voice. He would write during the day--sometimes taking a separate room away from his and Hadley's apartment or writing at cafés where he could chat with other writers and artists. If Hadley's upbringing was fairly conventional her lifestyle in Paris was not. The 20s was about youth culture and shaking off the past, which had been darkened with the bloodshed of WWI. Hemingway was not the only writer looking for a new language to express how the world had changed. In a letter to Hemingway before their marriage Hadley wrote "The world's a jail and we're going to break it together." But Paris wasn't everything Hadley expected it to be. She took care of their home all day and while she missed Ernest, it didn't seem that he missed her. He was part of the creative sphere of Paris and she was not.
By all appearances Ernest and Hadley had a very typical middle class marriage but they were just about the only ones of their group to do so. Marriage and family life were considered bourgeoisie and most of Hem and hadley their friends were either unfaithful or didn't believe in having children. People drank hard and played even harder, so it's not surprising that staying happily married in such an environment would be a challenge. They moved to Toronto when Hadley was ready to give birth to their son, John, but it was stifling for Ernest who didn't seem to be cut out for domesticity. As soon as the baby was old enough to travel they sailed once again for France. Whatever happiness they initially had seemed to erode away in the Parisian milieu of the 1920s.
"If Ernest was changing, Montparnasse was, too. American tourists flooded the scene hoping to get a glimpse of a real bohemian while the usual suspects grew wilder and stranger for the new audience. Kiki was one of the most famous artist's models around, and May Ray's lover and muse. She could often be seen at the Dôme or Rotonde with her pet mouse. It was small and white, and she wore it attached to her wrist with a delicate silver chain. The fleshy redhead Flossie Martin held court in front of the Select shouting obscenities to locals and tourists alike. Bob McAlmon vomited neatly in the flowerbeds of all the best cafés and then ordered another absinthe. That absinthe was illegal deterred no one, and the same held true for opium and cocaine. Ernest and I had always been more than happy enough with alcohol, but there was the very real feeling, for many, of needing to up the ante--to feel more and risk more. It grew harder and harder to shock anyone."
It can be really painful reading about the disintegration of a marriage. As supportive of Ernest as Hadley was she couldn't be a critic, but there would be others who could talk about literature in a way that she couldn't. Their ongoing joke was that she liked Henry James, an author Hemingway saw as mired in the past. Ernest and Hadley had traveled to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls, where he finally found inspiration for his writing. It was during this period that he wrote his famous novel, The Sun Also Rises, and also met and began an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer who became his second wife.
Whatever you think about Ernest Hemingway the man, Paris Wife made for fascinating reading, McLain offers a glimpse into a marriage and a world that seems by parts both interesting and immensely sad. I'm not sure how much further I want or need to delve into these lives but it has been enlightening. I suspect he had the ability to be a real bastard, but I still feel a twinge 'something' (sympathy? understanding?) for his struggles as an author. It seems as though he worked so hard to create this myth of being 'Ernest Hemingway' that not even he could really live up to it and he and others suffered for it along the way.
This has inspired me to finally pick up Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, to get an even fuller picture of this period. I've also got A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously about his life in 20s Paris with Hadley, at the ready. And out of curiosity I've been dipping into Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway by Alice Hunt Sokoloff. (less)
I have a soft spot for novels that are narrated in the first person but tell a story that isn't so much about the narrator but someone...moreExcellent read!
I have a soft spot for novels that are narrated in the first person but tell a story that isn't so much about the narrator but someone they know well. Thomas Cook's Places in the Dark, published in 2000, is just such a book. I loved Cook's award-winning The Chatham School Affair and can't quite figure out why I waited so long to read another of his novels. He's a masterful storyteller and not only does he write well but his plotting is assured and suspenseful. He manages to breathe life into a story that sounds somewhat clichéd--a mysterious woman arrives in a small town, a year later she flees leaving one man dead and another on the verge of madness. It sounds simple and the reader makes certain assumptions they believe will be true, but Cook is never quite so predictable.
"More than anyone I ever knew, my brother Billy felt the rapid wings of summer, how it darted like a bird through the trees of Maine, skittered along streams and ponds, then soared away, bright and gleaming, leaving us behind, shivering in coats and scarves."
Billy is a romantic and lives and loves passionately. Younger than his brother Cal by five years they couldn't be more different but that doesn't lessen the closeness they feel for each other growing up in Maine in the 1930s. Cal is practical and rational and looks after Billy who has no second thoughts before jumping into a fast moving river to save a small girl. Billy's life is defined by the passion he feels. He's guided by his heart, despite the skepticism both Cal and their father feel. Cal looks after his younger brother but can never quite match the inner brightness that Billy carries with him. And he never feels the unconditional love and respect his mother, in particular, reserves for her younger son. Both are inveterate romantics.
Billy follows in his father's footsteps and takes over the running of the family newspaper, which is deemed unsuitable work for Cal. Instead Cal is to study the law as it is cut and dried and requires no sentiment. So each brother leads his own life in the small coastal town of Port Alma, separate yet working in close proximity of the other and their parents. Then one cold November day Dora March steps off the Port Alma bus and throws both men's lives into an upheaval. Dora is a beautiful but scarred woman who remains shy and somewhat skittish. She obviously has something dark in her past, but it remains deeply hidden. She takes a job first as a maid/companion to an elderly resident of the town, but after his death she begins working at The Sentinel for Billy.
"For all his life Billy loved the idea that people had secrets they held within themselves like gemstones in a velvet pouch, precious, dazzling, rare. Perhaps that was what initially drew him to Dora. Not her beauty, but how grotesquely it had been marred. Not what she let him see, but what she hid."
It's, of course, unsurprising when Billy begins showing affection for Dora and perhaps more than that, as he hints that he's planning on asking her to marry him. Cal isn't so easily convinced of Dora's intentions or motives. In a way he is Dora's foil--both are afraid of love but for vastly different reasons. She cautions him not to want love too much for it can have regrettable consequences. And on the same bus Dora arrived on, she leaves Port Alma, and it's more than just a broken heart that is left in her wake.
Cook's suspense is more of a 'slow burn' sort of suspense. He takes his time telling his story, there's nothing rushed about it. He begins with a crime and then goes back and fills in the story. Each thread is woven so naturally into the storyline that the flashbacks aren't even noticeable as it all flows together so nicely. It's a simple story really, but Cook still manages to make it surprising. I really enjoyed Places in the Dark and won't let so much time pass before I start another of his books. As a matter of fact I've dug out the other books I own by him (including The Chatham School Affair for a reread), and have already started reading his forthcoming book The Quest for Anna Klein, which I am fortunate enough to have a galley copy of on my Nook. If you enjoy a good, literate, suspenseful story, usually with a historical setting that involves a mystery or crime of some sort, you might give Thomas Cook a try. (less)