Pepe Carvalho, Spain’s best-loved detective, returns

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PEPE CARVALHO is Spain’s most famous detective. In 23 novels over 32 years, he idled in Barcelona’s cafés and bars and fell in and out of love; sometimes he solved cases. Often more gripping than the machinations of criminals were his observations of the transformation of post-Franco Spain, particularly Barcelona, Carvalho’s adopted city (he hails from Galicia). His creator, Manuel Vazquez Montalbán, died suddenly in 2003, and the final Carvalho book was published the year after. Now, after 16 years, he has been resurrected by another writer, Carlos Zanón.

On the first page of “Problemas de Identidad” (“Identity Problems”), Carvalho wakes up naked in a hotel room in Madrid. He turns on the television and sees the intensifying Catalan crisis, the balconies of Barcelona overspilling with independence flags. Carvalho is having an affair with the wife of an important politician in the city, and on leaving the hotel he is roughed up by a couple of heavies with a warning: go back to Barcelona, and stay there. Sex, politics, and a bruising encounter: he has been gone a while, but it seems Pepe Carvalho is much the same. 

But the book’s central artifice, suggested in the title, is that this is not the same Pepe Carvalho. Rather, in these pages the reader meets the “real” Carvalho—on which Vazquez Montalbán’s version was based. It turns out Vazquez Montalbán, referred to simply as “The Writer”, lived above this Carvalho, and became a kind of drinking partner and confidante. Eventually, he asked Carvalho’s permission to create a character based on him. Amused, Carvalho agreed, and ever since he has been haunted by his famous literary avatar. It is a clever trick by Mr Zanón, and one that allows him to respect and refer to the original version of the character while making the new one his own.

So Carvalho is still a private detective who operates in the grubbier bits of Spanish society. He is a gourmet, and an amateur psychologist dissecting society’s ills while being a man of ambiguous morality himself. He hates pop music and has a penchant for burning books. But this Carvalho is older, sicker, more doubtful. As he tries to solve the brutal double murder at the core of this tale, he is tormented by his literary other, running a dialogue with The Writer in his mind: how would he have written this case? What would his Carvalho have done?

Where Vazquez Montalbán was a journalist by trade, Mr Zanón is a novelist. For better and for worse, it shows. For the first time, Carvalho has been written in the first person, and Mr Zanón gets deeper into his mind. At times, Carvalho’s insomniac thoughts have the same crepuscular feel as Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”. At others, observing some bit of venality, they run in long, bitter sentences, laced with misery, that go on and on until they seem to run out of breath. More than before, Carvalho seems morally, physically and psychologically undone. And he wallows in it, “the blissful liberation of total defeat”. 

Yet what the new Carvalho gains in psychological shading, he loses in journalistic acuity. Political and social observations are fewer and less acute than before. In Vazquez Montalbán’s telling he was a caustic observer of corruption and the sleight of hand involved in Spain’s transition to democracy, as crimes were forgotten and the same elites kept their places at the top. The interim has thrown up no shortage of new material, but the observations, when they come, do not have the same edge. The push for Catalan independence? “Patriotic flags, idiotic flags.” The transition to democracy? “A lie that no longer serves us.” Perhaps Mr Zanón simply knows his literary strengths. As his Carvalho admits: “we would need The Writer to explain what’s going on.”

Resurrecting an icon is never easy, but Mr Zanón has done it sensitively. His framing device allows him to reboot the character but to keep the features that made Carvalho such a distinctive figure: the humour, the surprising tenderness, a certain class consciousness, and, beneath it all, the cynicism. Even without the apposite commentary, Pepe Carvalho is still an irresistible noir hero. 

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