Friday, July 15, 2011
Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar
originally published as La playa de lost ahogados, 2009
translated by Sonia Soto
Death on a Galician Shore is the second book in the Leo Caldas series, following Villar's awesome Water-Blue Eyes, which I read and enjoyed very much last year. It's not a gritty, edgy novel, but it's not on the lighter side either.
Set in Galicia, which is composed of four different provinces in the northwestern part of Spain, the action begins when the body of fisherman Justo Castelo (aka El Rubio) is washed up on the shore at Panxón. His wrists were bound, his palms pressed together with a flexible, green plastic tie strip. It might have been suicide, and it may have been an accident, but Inspector Caldas doesn't think so. There's just something not right about the placement of the cable tie on his hands, and then there's a head wound to take into account, leading the Inspector to believe that it's looking more like a possible murder. The problem is that the last time he was seen was on a Sunday, out on his boat, alone, which a) is normally a day of rest so no one fishes, and b) puts Justo in the boat by himself with no one else. So Caldas and his assistant Rafa Estevez leave Vigo and head off to Panxón to investigate. What they find is a great deal of reluctance among the villagers to talk and few clues, except for a couple of things: Castelo had seemed to be scared lately, and he had once crewed with a captain whose boat had foundered in a storm ten years earlier. The crew made it to shore, but the captain drowned, and recently people swear they have seen his ghost. But with so many people unwilling to talk, it's not going to be an easy crime to solve.
Villar starts with an intriguing premise that quickly captures the reader's interest. As the crime takes some time to investigate, the action slows while Caldas and Rafa are in the midst of gathering information, taking statements and doing other necessary police investigative work. The pace picks up later in the book as new information is gained, and Leo can pick up the various threads of the story, try out his various theories of the crime, and pinpoint various suspects with motive to get rid of Castelo. It seems there are a few, and there are enough red herrings to keep the reader busy trying to sort through them. The best part of this novel, however, is the atmosphere of the fishing village -- the auctions, talk about the sad state of the fishing industry, the suspicious and superstitious locals, even the food -- which all come together to provide a very realistic sense of place that adds to the overall enjoyment of the novel and allows the reader to immerse him or herself in the scene. And, to the author's credit, the novel reads like a novel, not a screenplay, which is highly appreciated and gives the book a very solid footing in the world of crime fiction.
The characters in this novel are all finely drawn -- there's Caldas, who during this story, is preoccupied with thoughts of Alba (the woman who left him) and his father. There's a constant running gag throughout the novel about his radio show Patrolling the Waves, and the added music that becomes a type of jingle while Leo's thinking of his answers. He's recognized everywhere his show is broadcast. As a policeman, Caldas is the kind of guy who "...was never interested in the culprits. To him, the main thing was knowing the motives, the reasons, " and this fact makes him a very diligent policeman, never flagging during an investigation when he feels he's on to something. If you've read Water-Blue Eyes, you know that his character was well established in that novel; here, there's a bit more about him on the personal side, but nothing really is needed to enhance his detective personality. Rafa Estevez (who isn't actually a native Galician) is also interesting but a bit heavy handed, lacking in patience, and always ready to get tough with a suspect or anyone else that he might not like or who is giving him trouble. But he's Caldas' right-hand man, and has learned much from his boss, especially not to discuss business if Leo's hungry. And even the suspects and the quirky villagers are well detailed.
Death on a Galician Shore is a good novel, a solid crime fiction read with a good backstory, and I liked it a great deal, although I think I enjoyed his first book, Water-Blue Eyes a little bit more. For the sake of understanding Leo's character better, it's best to start with Villar's first novel, but I think anyone could read this one and still have a feel for this Spanish detective. I'll definitely be looking for more of Villar's novels in the future.