Water-Blue Eyes by Domingo Villar, translated from the Spanish by Martin Schifino, features one of the most horrific murder methods I have read, but despite this the short police procedural leaves you feeling you want to read more from this author. The plot has a nice twist at the end, but it is the evocative atmosphere, Galician location, humour, characters and culinary details that make this novel, and detective Leo Caldas, a fine addition to the variety of European crime fiction.
It was the winner of the Brigada 21 Prize for best first crime novel, and also the Sintagma Prize.
Inspector Leo Caldas takes part in a regular radio program, Patrol the Waves, which he hates because the phone calls concern the work of the city police rather than the homicide section. But this makes him well known in Vigo, and this celebrity does help when he introduces himself to potential witnesses.
He is called to attend a twenty floor high rise on Toralla island where Luis Reigosa, a young jazz saxophonist, has been found dead in his luxurious apartment. The body has horrific burns in the stomach and groin region, and Reigosa had been tied by his wrists to the headboard of the bed.
Leo Caldas, and his subordinate Rafael Estevez, start an investigation that will lead them to jazz clubs, gay bars and involvement with Vigo's influential upper class.
Rafael Estevez is a hulking six foot five "bull in a china shop" from Zaragoza, who is finding it difficult to cope with the changeable Galician weather, the people and the steepness of the streets. He is a stern Aragonese, who loses his temper at the slightest hint of opposition, and has been banished to Vigo as a punishment for some previous incident.
'Is Estevez with you?
'Yes,' ratified Caldas. 'Shouldn't he have come?'
'He shouldn't have been born,' replied Soto and rang off.
There is a amusing confrontation when Estevez, after being stung by a weaver fish on his foot, takes his shoe and sock off in a gay bar, and has to fight off admirers offering him a foot massage.
Leo Caldas like Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano, is a man who enjoys fresh seafood, and wine, so it is doubly convenient that his father owns a vineyard, and that he lives near the Galician coast.
'I thought you wouldn't,' muttered Caldas, helping himself to a piece of potato and placing the sardine on top of it, so that the potato would soak up the grease and salt of the fish.
Author Domingo Villar writes scripts for film television and is also a radio food critic so it is no surprise that food plays such an important part in a Caldas investigation.
He'd gone for a small dish of beef stewed on a low heat, with potatoes seasoned with olive oil and a mixture of paprika and cayenne pepper, and a good portion of scallop quiche, served just the way he liked it: the pastry thin and crispy, and the scallops simply cooked with browned onions. Carlos had opened a bottle of wine for both of them before dinner.
It is all very civilized compared with the average British cop , who is lucky if he gets a hurried bacon roll during a case.
Villar pays homage to some of the great crime writers as the saxophonist with the blue eyes has on his night table The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri, and bookshelves packed with novels by Montalban, Ellroy, Chandler, and Hammett; all this detail adds to the successful chemistry created in the book.
I remember from our trip to Santiago del Compostela, a few years ago, reading the graffiti written in English:
'This is not Spain-Freedom for Galicia'.
Villar uses the contrast between the laid back local Caldas, at home in the environment, and the exiled Estevez totally stumped by the manners, food, and climate to emphasize the internal differences in Spain. A fascinating short novel which packs a lot into a mere 167 pages.
As a starter Leo Caldas ordered half a kilo of goose barnacles which he had reserved over the phone, and as a main course a huge sole he chose from the display counter.
I am definitely going to read the second book in the series, Death on a Galician Shore, when it is published in English next April.