Bitter Lemon Press, 2016
originally published as Betibú, 2011
translated by Miranda France
I'll start here by saying that I loved this book. It's only February, and it's already my favorite crime novel of the year. Let's just say that in terms of current crime fiction, something absolutely spectacular is going to have to come along to move it down the list from number one.
Claudia Piňeiro is also at the top of my list of contemporary crime writers, and with good reason. In all of her books, she has this uncanny knack of being able to put her characters into some pretty extreme situations and then we watch as they exercise their consciences (or not) and act accordingly. The results are always beyond amazing, supporting my idea that the best crime fiction doesn't necessarily have to be plot driven -- what people do and why, what they discover about themselves, and in some cases about the society in which they live, is why I read crime. People who have not read Claudia Piňeiro's work are missing out on some of the best crime writing of our time.
As was the case in her Thursday Night Widows, the author takes us back into that bastion of elite privilege, the gated community in Buenos Aires. This time we are at the Maravillosa Country Club, where after going through the regular rigorous security measures to get in to clean the home of Pedro Chazarreta, Gladys Varela gets to the house, starts her routine, and sees Chazaretta sleeping in a green velvet, highback chair. Deciding to clean up a bit of whisky that's spilled on the floor from an overturned glass, she discovers that Chazaretta is not sleeping at all, but dead, throat slit and holding a bloody knife in his right hand. Despite its tightness of security, Maravillosa had been the site of another, earlier murder, that of Chazaretta's wife Gloria. He had been the prime suspect in her death, but "on the grounds of lack of evidence," the case was dismissed. Her murder had been committed in exactly the same way, and privately, people are saying that the way in which Chazaretta was killed is what he deserved, since most people still believe that he was Gloria's killer.
Chazaretta's death and the coverage of events marks the beginning of a partnership between the three main characters in this novel. First there is Jaime Brena, an over-sixty former crime writer for the newspaper El Tribuno,who has been demoted and is now dealing with society news such as writing pieces about surveys about sleeping face up or face down, the occasional preschool opening, and other such mundane or ridiculous assignments. The crime beat was given to the "Crime Boy," who is the new kid on the newspaper staff, and who, as Brena sees it, is "Very soft. Generation Google: no legwork, just keyboard and screen, everything off the Internet." He has zero clue how to do his crime reporting job, and Brena actually feels sorry for him, and decides it can't hurt to take the kid under his wing. The third leg of this triangle is Nurit Iscar, the titular Betty Boo, who until she decided to change direction and write a romance novel, was known as "the Dark Lady of Argentine literature," for her mystery/crime books. However, a bad review of her romance novel took her out of the world of fiction writing altogether (except for jobs as a ghostwriter) but she has been tasked by the editor of El Tribuno (who used to be a lover of hers) to provide write-ups about the Chazaretta murder from a home the paper is using in Maravillosa. When the three put their heads together, this trio of loners discover that something horrific is going on, and that the deaths at Maravillosa are just the tip of the iceberg.
However great the crime plot sounds, Betty Boo moves well out of the ordinary realm of the norm in terms of just another book with just another murder investigation. When all is said and done, the biggest focus of this book is in examining the state of modern journalism. Brena refers to Rodolfo Walsh more than once in this novel, an Argentinian journalist who, in 1977 in the middle of the Dirty War, wrote an open letter to the military junta and was killed the day after. Walsh wrote that
"Millions want to be informed. Terror is based on lack of communication. Break the isolation. Feel again the moral satisfaction of an act of freedom. Defeat the terror. Circulate this information."Brena notes that today's journalists have "turned bourgeois," and that
"Today the high priests of journalism, or 'intellectuals" in inverted commas, are happy to sound off from the safety of their studies or their holiday homes. And they think they're important because they're 'opinion-formers.' ... Many of them will offer up as an irrefutable truth something that's nothing more than their own opinion. Or the opinion of the people they work for."Piňeiro also reveals the implications of a "news agenda that leaves out certain stories," often allowing perpetrators of major crimes to walk free. It is these "unpunished crimes," Pineiro notes, that "always conceal something more terrible than the crime itself." For my money, she's hit the nail on the head.
Considering that this is a novel from Argentina, this topic carries a lot of historical meaning and a lot of historical weight, but I could feasibly make the same argument about journalism and the media in this country, or for that matter, any other country where powerful people have the means to control the truth. As Nurit Iscar also notes, novelists have a responsibility as well -- to present "another reality, an even truer one," in the guise of fiction, since they "don't have to answer to any one."
Of course, there's so much more in this novel, and it is one you could read solely for the murder plot. However, the truth is that Betty Boo has a richness and a depth that is rarely found in crime writing these days, and it is that kind of something so out of the ordinary that I look for when I pick up a crime novel. This book is another one that left me stunned because of how very perceptive it is -- and I can't speak highly enough about it.