Hill, Antonio - 'The Summer of Dead Toys' (translated by Laura McGoughlin)
THE SUMMER OF DEAD TOYS is the best Spanish crime novel I've read. Structured round a classic police procedural plot, the author exposes some of the baser aspects of human nature as he peels off the layers of respectability of a group of privileged high-society types. At the same time, his protagonist, Inspector Héctor Sagaldo, has issues of his own to cope with -issues that result in an atmosphere of vague menace that pervades the book and culminates in a shock ending. All set in the blistering heat of Barcelona, a town that comes alive in this absorbing narrative.
Sagaldo has been suspended from the Barcelona police force for six months for beating up Dr Omar, part of a criminal ring involved in trafficking young girls from Nigeria – girls to whom terrible things happen on their arrival in Spain and Omar's "clinic". Sagaldo has been in his native Buenos Aires while the affair blows over, though on his return to Barcelona it is still not clear if Omar, said to be a practitioner of black magic, will press charges. For this reason, Superintendant Savall wants Sagaldo to keep a low profile, so gives him a trivial but tiresome case to keep him occupied.
A teenager, Marc, has fallen out of his bedroom window in his parents' house. Though everyone, the police included, believe the incident was accidental or suicide, the boy's mother Joana is convinced that Marc was killed. She is a constant presence at the police station, so is relieved when she meets Sagaldo, who tells her he will investigate thoroughly. Most of the book consists of this investigation, as Sagaldo meets friends and relations of the dead boy. He is immediately convinced that there is due cause for suspicion by the behaviour of Marc's two closest friends.
One of the many aspects of this book that I liked is that the other two police officers who feature are both women, and are both very competent professionals. Sergeant Martina Andreu is investigating the Omar case. She's an old friend of Sagaldo, so feels conflicted when Omar disappears and evidence comes to light that seems to implicate Sagaldo. The other officer is Agent Leire Castro, the brightest graduate from the academy and assigned as Sagaldo's partner in the Marc case. The three detectives are intelligent and honest; it is a pleasure to experience the plot's complexities gradually coming to light as they follow up their small leads and hunches.
Another strong aspect of the novel is the characterisation. Sagaldo has split up from his wife a couple of years ago for unusual reasons, but spends a lot of time thinking about her and their son, also a teenager. He himself was sent from Argentina to Barcelona when a boy, for reasons that become apparent. The relationship between parents and children is a recurrent theme: for example Marc's mother Joana left the family immediately after he was born and has only returned to Barcelona after her son's death. Her ex-husband has remarried, and is now the reluctant father of an adopted little Chinese girl. As the detectives find out more, they become aware of another girl, called Iris, whose story is central to the resolution of the case.
I highly recommend this very assured debut novel. It ticks all the boxes for a perfect crime-fiction experience.
Read another review of THE SUMMER OF DEAD TOYS.
Maxine Clarke, England