In most mystery novels the detective is the star in the spot light and the city, country house, deserted moor, whatever is atmosphere, the source of clues, scenery.
Manual Vazquez Montalban’s detective novels reverse that relationship. His plots are almost non-existent. His detective Jose ‘Pepe’ Carvalho doesn’t do much of anything. At least not in the two novels I’ve read and recommend to you, Offside (1988) and An Olympic Death (1991). (Admittedly, a small sample out of the 22 Carvalho novels Montalban wrote.)
Ah, but Montalban has set his novels in Barcelona, the city where he was born in 1939. (He died in 2003.)
And who needs another star when he has Barcelona?
It’s truly spooky to read these books and then visit the city as I did this summer. They’re not set so far in the past—just in the years slightly before the 1992 Olympics put the city on the global tourist map—that the city Montalban describes should be totally unfamiliar.
But it is.
The neighborhoods, the communities, the working class hang outs that Carvalho frequents have been by and large pushed well out of the way of the crowds that fly in to be able to say they’ve seen a Gaudi.
That Barcelona is gone, Montalban argues, and it’s up to him and his fictional detective to recreate and celebrate it.
So Offside, which has Carvalho investigating death threats against the new English star brought in to bring a championship to Barcelona’s beloved soccer club, sends us into not the rarified world of top tier European soccer, but into the world of the third-class, and working-class team Centellas. Palacin, once a star and now a has-been with a damaged knee, has been brought in not to save Centellas from failure but to make sure it fails gracefully so that management can sell the valuable land its stadium sits on to one of the real estate developers circling the Olympics like hawks over a hen yard.
That plot gives Montalban room to do what he likes to do best: celebrate Barcelona in all its stubborn, contrarian glory.
So the story pauses while Carvalho gives the precise recipe for what he calls “the legendary almedroch, which you can find way back in the Sent Sovi, the bible of medieval Catalan cookery.”
Or, in one of the book’s funniest scenes, to have Carvalho take a Moroccan thug into a bar dedicated to the recently dead (1975) Spanish dictator Franco. “Outside the door lay the new, democratic, Olympic, yuppied Barcelona; inside there was a small homage to nostalgia for Franco’s Spain.” As Carvalho looks around at the patrons, who were “frugal, severe, somewhat embittered by history and were attended to by mine host, who was as slow and taciturn as rest of them, and then at the Arab he has brought into this bar, he anticipates an explosion.
But it never comes. Mohammed looks around at this shrine of Fascism and says, “Franco, a great warrior. One of my father’s uncles fought with Franco in the war against the communists.” And Carvalho—and Montalban’s readers—once more understand that Barcelona and Catalonia and Spanish history are woven into a tapestry of total unpredictability.
(The scene is even more amazing in light of Mantalban’s own history. He was arrested in 1962 after joining a demonstration in support of a miners’ strike in Galicia and then tortured by Franco’s security forces. He served a year-and-a-half of a four year sentence.)
The tiniest details, especially about food, can evoke so much about Barcelona and its human history for Montalban, just as a madeleine does for Proust. (Montalban isn’t any Proust. His books are much, much shorter for one thing. And he’s much more political. I think it’s fair to say he was one of the great voices of the Spanish left of his generation. )
In An Olympic Death, for example, perplexed at what to make for dinner one night, Carvalho finds a recipe for chestnut soufflé (yeah, I whip them up for myself all the time) that just happens, amazingly to him and us too, to fit what he was left in the kitchen. The chestnuts set off a string of memories: of his mother roasting them when he was a kid. “And along with the chestnuts roasted in her recycled frying pan, there would be panellet cakes made from sweet potato, the only sweet raw materials that all Spaniards could lay their hands on in those days.”
The books are, it seems to me, an effort to preserve a time and a place for him and us that Montalban fears will vanish.
That makes them amazing guides to what makes this place, Barcelona, different from the other places that we consume as tourists. Reading Montalban we get a stomach churning understanding of the horror of what passes for paella in most restaurants now. Or a visceral understanding of the identification of Barcelona with its soccer club.
You can find plenty of guide books that will tell you about Wilfred the Hairy and other greats in Barcelona and Catalonia’s distant history. There’s much less to read if you want to understand what makes Barcelona—and this is true, I’ve found, for any of the world’s great cities—tick now.
Montalban’s novels are the best guide I’ve found for filling in that part of my understanding of a truly fascinating place.
If reading one makes you try fried milk just once, I’ve got a feeling that it would have made Montalban smile.