"Only after Franco’s death in 1975 did mystery novels come in from the cold, when writers used them to ask tough questions about Spanish society and question state-sponsored police procedures."
P.J. Brooke is the husband-and-wife team of Philip J. O’Brien and Jane Brooke. They divide their time between Scotland and Granada. Their second novel featuring Sub-Inspector Max Romero, A Darker Night, is due from Soho/Constable this summer. In Part I of a two-part survey, they look at Spanish crime fiction from its beginnings until its liberation, with the death of Francisco Franco in 1975. (Read Part II of P.J. Brooke's survey of Spanish crime fiction here.)
But in 1492, the Catholic kings defeated the last Muslim kingdom, and Columbus discovered the Americas. Los Reyes Catolicos celebrated by expelling Jews who did not convert to Christianity, and later, the Muslims. Church, crown and military created a repressive Catholic state that lasted, almost without let-up, until the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. Spain was not the easiest place to be a writer.
Despite civil wars, censorship and a small reading public, some good novels were produced in nineteenth-century Spain. In 1853, 13 years after Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón wrote Spain’s first mystery, The Nail and other Tales of Mystery and Crime. Translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories led to local imitations, but the mystery novel never really caught on, and Alarcón, Peréz Galdós and their contemporaries were more influenced by Sir Walter Scott, Dickens and Balzac than by Wilkie Collins.
Francisco García Pavon wrote novels featuring local Police Chief Manuel Gonzalez “Plinio,” and his Dr. Watson, the veterinarian Don Lotario. The Plinio novels, set in a Spanish provincial town, were very popular and were made into a TV series. But they are mild in a Miss Marple way, where Franco’s cops were brutal and corrupt. Only after Franco’s death in 1975 did mystery novels come in from the cold, when writers used them to ask tough questions about Spanish society and question state-sponsored police procedures.
In Madrid, Juan Madrid’s Chandlerian hero, Toni Romano, was an ex-cop, boxer and debt collector. Madrid’s other books featured Manuel Flores, a gypsy police officer coping with prejudice. Jorge Martínez Reverte ’s journalist investigator, Julio Galvéz, investigated crimes all over Spain, illuminating social and political problems. Galvez en Euskadi dealt with the Basque terrorist ETA.
Younger writers have carried on this tradition, among them Teresa Solana in A Not So Perfect Crime, a stylish and witty portrait of Barcelona’s nouveau riche, and, in Madrid, novels by Elvira Lindo, David Torres and Antonio Jiménez Baza.