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An entertaining dose of surrealism

Barbara Ludman

Barbara Ludman reviews Rafael Reig's Blood on the Saddle and A Pretty Face, set in a dystopian world where the oil has run out and parts of Madrid have been flooded, so one gets around by boat, bicycle or elevated electrobus, as well as Michael Harvey's The Chicago Way.

In Rafael Reig’s dystopian world, the oil has run out and parts of Madrid have been flooded, so one gets around by boat, bicycle or elevated electrobus. Whole suburbs are subterranean, with papier-mâché acacia trees in collapsible gardens.

“Anglo” is the official language now that the American-Iberian federation runs the country—or is the real ruler Chopeitia Genomics, a shadowy genetic engineering firm producing mysterious green capsules that turn addicts’ brains to concrete?

Our hero is Carlos Clot, private eye, who files his single-malt whisky under I for “indispensable” and shares an office with a partner who’s fascinated by ant colonies and appalled by Clot’s dress sense. It’s not so much the blue, pinstriped polyester suit with large grease spots, or the open-weave brown shoes with rubber soles, as the absence of a belt, which Clot can hardly notice under his huge paunch. Only his fedora is passable.

Is this a send-up of noir novels, a take on science fiction or simply the wildest, most entertaining dose of surrealism one is likely to encounter? All of the above.

In Blood on the Saddle (Serpent’s Tail), Clot takes on a missing person’s case: an author of popular westerns has lost the heroine of his half-finished manuscript and consequently the thread of the plot. Clot looks for her in bars where the literati go to sneer at authors whose books actually sell; and establishments featuring magicians who cut young women in half; and among the headless bodies (and bodyless heads) one finds in scrapyards where addicts gather.

He’s meanwhile being stalked by agents of Chopeitia, who assume Clot knows something—which he does—and want to make a deal that will force him into choosing between unethical acts. That wouldn’t be a problem for most PIs, but Clot, though a slob, is intensely moral.

Clot turns up all too briefly in Reig’s A Pretty Face (Serpent’s Tail). It’s narrated by a children’s book author who’s shot by hit men on page two and wanders through Madrid with one of her creations, an adolescent lad who can’t take his eyes off her autopsy. “It was a difficult sort of love,” she writes. “I was dead, he was invented. He was fourteen, with an erection of less than four inches and fingernails bitten to the quick.”

She has no idea who sent the killers, and nor does her father. He hires Clot, who, despite his shambling image, finds out more than he can tell his client. The green capsules—invented, it appears, by her father—also turn up in this book, as well as Chopeitia Genomics, and the author’s husband, a scientist after a Nobel Prize.

The second book was released before the first, but to find one’s way through Reig’s Madrid, it’s a good idea to read Blood on the Saddle first, and to cheer up dreary days, to dip into it often.

From the semi-sane to the straightforward: Michael Harvey is co-creator and executive producer of Cold Case Files, and a cold case features in this, his first crime novel, The Chicago Way (Quercus)—a rape and assault case, never solved. Former policeman, now private investigator Michael Kelly is hired to look into the case while a series of rapes, attempted rapes and murders erupts around him.

The characters are wonderfully drawn and the meaner streets of Chicago come alive, from slums and red-light districts to swampy, neglected areas under the elevated train tracks. It’s enough to put one off the city entirely.

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