Villar, Domingo - 'Death on a Galician Shore' (translated by Sonia Soto)
I'm always particularly interested in the local flavour and culture of novels set in Europe, and so was intrigued to read this novel, set on the Spanish coastline in Galicia just above the border between Spain and Portugal. The novel was shortlisted for the 2011 Crimewriters' Association International Dagger Award. It features Inspector Leo Caldas, a solitary character (although there are numerous allusions to a girlfriend, Alba, and a relationship that has recently ended), who is also a bit of a celebrity. The latter quality arises from his weekly engagement in a phone-in radio show 'Patrolling the Waves', where people call up to talk about issues that they think the police should be helping with. Caldas' father is also an important character in the book with whom Caldas has a complex relationship. He is semi-retired but running a vineyard, and keeps a list of stupid people in his 'Book of Idiots', a list that continues to be updated at regular intervals during the novel.
Caldas is partial to good food and wine, and the book is peppered with descriptions of trips to local restaurants, reminiscent of Inspector Montalbano in the Camilleri books. Indeed, towards the start of the book, his colleague Estevez has to wait until they have finished a delicious lunch of soup, followed by squid in ink with rice, before Estevez can finally start to tell Caldas of that morning's call to Panxón to investigate a body washed up on the beach. The body was that of a fisherman, Justo Castelo (El Rubio). At first sight, El Rubio seems to have drowned himself, even though his legs and hands were tied together. However, the coroner asserts that the dead man couldn't have tied the cable ties himself, and therefore must have been murdered. And so Caldas and Estevez begin a slow, painstaking investigation into Justo's life to determine the identity of the murderer, and the reason why Justo was murdered.
The Galician character, which seems to include the rule of never giving a straight answer to a question, together with the secretiveness of the villagers, results in a slow start to the investigation. In fact, the Galician ways and custom often infuriate Estevez, an 'out of towner', and regularly recognised as such. But Caldas is a local, and knows he has to play the long game to try to find out what's going on. He is also able to enlist the help of an old friend of his family who lives in Panxón, Dr Trabazo, to discover more about El Rubio's past. It appears that El Rubio had been involved in a strange shipwreck some years ago. He and three others survived the shipwreck, but the captain had drowned. Is this old event somehow linked to Rubio's murder?
The story certainly delivers on the local culture, from food to issues with fishing quotas, and much more besides, which the excellent translation helps to convey. The investigation itself is quite slow to develop, and sometimes feels a bit repetitive but eventually takes off. I found Estevez to be an annoying character but he serves the useful purpose of highlighting the peculiarities of the Galician customs, as they are often as strange to him as they are to us. Caldas himself is an interesting complex character, and I gradually warmed to him. The book isn't a page-turner, but more of a slow steady approach to uncovering a murder, with some interesting local colour and characters thrown in along the way. Recommended with a glass of white wine and the local delicacy of gooseneck barnacles (which I'd love to get the chance to try one day).
Read another review of DEATH ON A GALICIAN SHORE.
Michelle Peckham, England