Water-blue Eyes by Domingo Villar
Translated from the Spanish by Martin Schifino.
First published in translation in the UK, 2008. First published, as Ojos de Agua, in 2006.
Water-blue Eyes is simply a perfect short crime novel, 176 pages long. It is a debut novel, but the character of Inspector Leo Caldas has lived a life before the book opens, and I am sure continues to live outside its pages. When we first encounter him, however, he his fulfilling his weekly stint on the local radio station’s phone-in programme “Patrol in the Air” in which he answers questions from listeners between musical numbers. Caldas really does not like the programme or this part of the job, partly because most of the callers complain about noise and other matters for the city police, not relevant to homicide, the department in which he works. By the end of the introductory chapter, and this week’s edition of the programme, Caldas has noted in his book “City police, nine; crazies, two; Leo, nil”.
The novel is set in the town of Vigo in the Galicia region of Spain, which sounds extremely beautiful. Galicia is in the north-west of the country, with Vigo in the south-western part. Along the Atlantic coast are archipelagos, little islands and rias (drowned valleys, pictured). Inevitably, progress and commercialism are eating into the distinguished, long history of the region, and Caldas’s case takes him to one such project – a huge apartment block on a tiny offshore island connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is in one of these apartments that a body has been found.
One of the many joys of this book is the mismatched partnership of Caldas, imbued in the traditions, proud history, and rambling, leisured manner of the region; and Rafael Estavez, the huge, irate, sweaty sergeant who has been transferred under some kind of a cloud from his native Zaragoza and assigned to Caldas by his boss, Salo, to keep him out of trouble and out of his hair, as far as possible. One of the many running pleasures in the novel are the myriad ways in which Estavez is a fish out of water, blundering around crassly and threateningly, getting the pair into trouble or alienating witnesses via his lack of any form of patience or internal anger management.
But to return to the plot. No sooner is the first chapter over and Caldas off the air, than he is plunged into the case. Estavez is waiting for him at the studio to tell him that a murder has occurred. He drives Caldas to the scene of the crime, where the detectives discover the savagely brutalised body of a saxophonist, tied to his bed. Although the reader is not spared the (extremely) gruesome details, they are conveyed in a brisk, detached style in the manner of conveying necessary information rather than dwelling on them for their own sake.
The rest of the novel tells the story of the investigation: how Caldas and Estavez initially develop some leads, how they follow them up, are led astray, and seem to get stuck between a dearth of suspects and no evidence. They are also attempting to avoid contact with Salo, their boss – on Caldas’s part, he fears being taken off the investigation because he’s questioned a rich benefactor who has plenty of political influence; and in Estavez’s case because of a legal complaint that he attacked a young man in a gay bar. (In fact, Estavez was resting his foot, which had been stung by a weaver fish, an act which is misinterpreted in a hilarious set-piece.)
Another running gag in the novel is Caldas’s despised radio programme. Although he hates it, it gains him entry into almost every situation, as people he wants to question have inevitably heard his show and treat him as a celebrity rather than as a police officer. Estevez, low on tact to put it mildly, keeps on making the point that it is only the radio show that is opening doors, adding even further to Caldas’s annoyance.
Caldas is a fully rounded character, but we only see some aspects of his life in this novel. He’s the son of the owner of a vineyard, and has a complicated relationship with his father, who is critical of his choice to live in the city, possibly because he cannot admit he wants his son to live with him. Caldas has had a relationship with a woman called Alba which is currently on hold, possibly to do with whether or not they want children. He’s a man who loves his environment; his appreciation of food is almost on a par with Salvo Montalbano’s*, in particular the delicious (we are told!) little crustacea and molluscs of the sea. The meals throughout are described in truly mouth-watering fashion.
You simply can’t beat this book for plot, character, atmosphere, a sense of place and poetry, and sheer readability. Although one does not feel one is reading an excessively detailed book - far from it - it is full of lovely touches, such as the book found by the victim’s bedside, and the conversation about it that Caldas holds with some university dons in the bar while waiting for their luras (small marine cephalopods) to be cooked. And most of these observations, even when apparently irrelevant, turn out to be part of the plot. All in all, the author is a naturally talented writer, who constantly brings a smile to the lips by his engaging asides and observations of human nature, yet who knows his craft - he never loses his control over the direction of this lean novel.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough as crime fiction of the best kind, and hope so much that the author, as is stated in the short biographical preface, is writing a second book. Martin Schifino, who also translates Carlos Fuentes, does a great job in this novel, so well portraying the different mores and cultures of the Spanish regions and the many humorous aspects of mutual misunderstandings. Don’t think this book is a comedy, though; it’s a morality tale with a sharp sting, much sharper than that of a weaver fish.
*Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the protagonist in a superb series of books by Andrea Camilleri, set in Sicily.
Why did I decide to read this book? Well, I had enjoyed so much reading all the books on Arcadia's Eurocrime current list (Consorts of Death/Staalesen, Che Committed Suicide/Markaris, Affairs of State/Manotti, At Close Quarters/Fuentes, etc) that I thought I should try this one! Then, Jose Ignacio of the blog The Game's Afoot reviewed it, so I just had to prioritise it. And I am so glad I did. I also see that Glenn has reviewed the book at International Noir Fiction.
I thank the publisher, Eurocrime/Arcadia, for sending me a copy of the book.