Wednesday, May 05, 2010

War, crime and politics: P.J. Brooke looks at Spanish crime fiction

===========
"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.)
======================
Medieval Spain was Jewish, Christian and Muslim, a culturally diverse, vibrant patchwork of Muslim and Christian principalities.

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.


Civil War turned back the clock
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 turned the clock back as writers went into exile. In the 35 years of Franco’s dictatorship that followed, Spain was isolated from Europe and North America. Mysteries were published but heavily censored, and, of course, they were conventional police procedurals.

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.


Breakthrough in Barcelona
The breakthrough happened in Barcelona, with a clutch of novels that depict a city riddled with corruption, violent and raw. Francisco González Ledesma’s Commissioner Ricardo Mendez stories were originally banned under Franco. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s series has an ex-Communist private investigator, Pepe Carvalho, and a call-girl assistant (Murder in the Central Committee). Eduardo Mendoza’s investigator is paranoid-schizophrenic.

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.
======================

Labels: , , ,

24 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

An interesting overview on Spanish crime fiction, Peter. a subject where my ignorance is more or less total, although I hope eventually to read some Montalbán.

13 years after Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre

Edgar may have come up with the first detective but the detective methodology seems to have been around a long time. The third chapter in Voltaire's Zadig(1748), the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo(1557), right back to the Babylonian Talmudic version of the story of the camel blind in one eye. Reading those pieces you can't help realizing how writers use pre-existing models.

May 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read some Vazquez Montalban, but much here is new to me, too, and much is worth following up.

“Zadig” was not the only time Voltaire turned detective. And elements prominent in noir melodrama go back well before that -- centuries before the Babylonian Talmud, even, though in that part of the world.

May 05, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Thanks, Peter. I clicked on those links. Unfortunately, Voltaire doesn't seem to have written up that case.

I've often heard it said that A C Doyle used Dr. Joseph Bell as his model for Sherlock Holmes but reading Zadig and those earlier pieces, I can't help wondering about that.

I'm sure you've read this bit from the Babylonian Talmud but I'll quote it anyway: 'Two Jewish slaves were one day walking along, when their master, who was following, overheard the one saying to the other, ‘There is a camel ahead of us, as I judge—for I have not seen—that is blind of one eye and laden with two skin-bottles, one of which contains wine and the other oil, while two drivers attend it, one of them an Israelite, and the other a Gentile.’ ‘You perverse men,’ said their master, ‘how can you fabricate such a story as that?’ The slave answered, and gave this as his reason, ‘The grass is cropped only on one side of the track, the wine, that must have dripped, has soaked into the earth on the right, and the oil has trickled down, and may be seen on the left; while one of the drivers turned aside from the track to ease himself, but the other has not even left the road for the purpose.’ Upon this the master stepped on before them in order to verify the correctness of their inferences, and found the conclusion true in every particular.'

May 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's very similar to the case in "Zadig." We may have that guy Voltaure figured out.

Voltaire did write about the case, but as a plea for tolerance rather than a tale of detection.

May 05, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A terrific blog, full of political and literary history.

Thanks for this.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I learned some things from it, as well. I was especially interested in the efflorescence of Spanish crime fiction after Franco died. It reminded me of what some people have said about Northern Ireland crime authors writing about the Troubles only now, after things have settled down.

May 06, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It interests me that mystery fiction could have been so dangerous to the Franco regime that they suppressed it and it blossomed after the regime was gone.

It sure says something to me about what can be said of substance in mysteries and that it can be such a force of social commentary, and that there is so much more to it than a few murders and culprits, which we all know.

But this sure confirms the relevance and power of crime fiction.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Huh. Lots here I didn't know. I was overseas when Franco died and Spain brought its monarchy back, and I remember reading Time and Newsweek avidly, trying to imagine why any 20th century country would want to put itself in the hands of a king after just being rid of a dictator.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was overseas when Franco died and Spain brought its monarchy back, and I remember reading Time and Newsweek avidly, trying to imagine why any 20th century country would want to put itself in the hands of a king after just being rid of a dictator.

Well, Juan Carlos seems to be a pretty cool king by all accounts. I don’t know Spanish history or psychology. Perhaps a king seemed a strong counterweight against the possibility of another Franco. I wonder if any Spanish crime fiction asks the question you did.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Peter a well documented and very nice post.
Just a very minor detail Mendoza's mentally insane detective does not show up in "The Truth About the Savolta Case".
I know you don't mention it but it can be implied.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I think North American readers are frequently surprised that crime fiction can be an instrument of social and political criticism. Perhaps this is because we have been blessed with political stability for so long; there’s less against which to rebel here. Or perhaps a kind of reverse Puritanism is responsible – entertainment, especially genre fiction, must be just that: entertainment.

But that’s not the case in Europe. Andrea Camilleri aims broadsides all over Italian politics and society, and is massively popular. And his friends Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Jean-Claude Izzo did the same in Spain and France. I’m not sure American crime writers have done this in a big way, except for a brief burst in the 1930s.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

J.I.E:

Thanks for the compliment and the clarification, though it was "P.J. Brooke" who wrote this guest post. I'll try to clear up any confusion with a bit of judicious editing.

May 06, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are many European mystery writers, those mentioned and more, i.e., Sjowall/Wahloo, to start with, then Henning Mankell and other Scandinavian authors.

Haven't read Montalban but know of his books and views. Also, Commissario Brunetti, Donna Leon's detective, is also facing social issues.

Many, many more, all over the world now, raise social issues, criticisms of governments, etc.

But what fascinated me is that a fascist regime would see crime fiction novels as so threatening, demonstrating their power and political substance.

And that only after it was gone, did mystery books flourish. It says a lot about the power of the genre.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Peter thanks for your clarification as well.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paco Ignacio Taibo in Mexico is another crime writer whose protagonist who aims barbs at government and police corruption.

It' may be surprising that a government would take seriously a kind of writing that some literary snobs may shun. But think of it: What more immediate instrument of government power is there than the police? Every private detective is a potential rival or even opponent of the police, so perhaps it no surprise that a repressive government might be worried about such fiction that features such characters.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. You'll notice that I did that bit of judicious editing.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Sure I did.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What do you think of their list? Vázquez Montalbán is the only one of the authors whose work I have read.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

We can find in the list some of the most important Spanish crime fiction writers. I only have a problem with the last sentence. I do not consider Elvira Lindo as a crime fiction writer. David Torres I have to look up for him and I can't find Antonio Jiménez Baeza.
Main problem is that some of the best or well know Spanish crime writers are not translated into English. Among the ones whose books are transalted but not included in the post we have: Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Domingo Villar, Eugenio Fuentes and Teresa Solana.
You can find them in Euro Crime.
Among the ones which are not translated we should not forget to mention Andreu Martin and Lorenzo Silva.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Teresa Solana is included in the last paragraph, and I believe Alicia Giménez-Bartlett's name will ccome up in Part II. Some of the other authors you name might be inclued as well.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

You are right Peter. I'm looking forward for Part II.

May 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll probably put up Part II this evening (early tommorow morning in your time zone).

May 07, 2010  
Anonymous P.J. Brooke said...

Picking up on Linkmeister's comment...King Juan Carlos is a pretty cool king indeed. At the age of 10, his family handed him over to Franco, who supervised his education, and chose his friends. In 1975 the old guy died. Juan Carlos suddenly turned round and said he was going to be a constitutional monarch in a multiparty democracy. The Civil War exiles came back, the Communist party was legalised and soon Spain had an elected, Socialist government. In 1981, there an an attempted military coup. Juan Carlos faced the hardliners down. The coup collapsed, and Spain has had a stable democracy ever since.
The coup attmpt is going to be the background of our next book.
Will keep you posted.
P.J. Brooke

May 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a fine teaser for a new novel. Thanks.

I am of the age whose first recollections of Franco are a running Saturday Night Live joke, rather than the last remaining link to a brutal time in European history.

May 11, 2010  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home