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With local colour

Ojos de agua*
Domingo Villar

Siruela, 2007, 187 pages

Javier Sánchez Zapatero


One of the defects that has weighed most heavily on the development of the Spanish crime novel has been authors' insistence on making Barcelona, and to a lesser extent Madrid , the only possible settings for crime narratives. The emblematic nature of both places – as political, economic, cultural and business centres – as well as the influence of novel series by pioneering writers such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Andreu Martín or Juan Madrid, has been the reason for the continual use of the chief geographical power centres as settings for the plots of nearly the whole of the Spanish crime tradition. The proliferation of crime authors and titles in recent years has ended up with this identical character at a time when the appearance of fresh contexts and spaces for novels has become possible. Angel Vallecillo, José Javier Abasolo, Juan Ramón Biedma or José Luis Serrano are some of the writers who have helped to call a halt to the dependence on Barcelona and Madrid backdrops, and have opened new avenues and possibilities for the Spanish crime novel. Domingo Villar, a Galician who has for some years lived in Madrid, has joined this ‘move' for the literature of the genre with the publication of his first book Ojos de agua (Eyes like water; Ollos de agua in the Galician original, which has been translated into Castilian Spanish by the author), a magnificent novel set in the town of Vigo, which demonstrates that it is not only the big cities that conceal tales worth telling.

The appearance of the corpse of a young teacher and jazz musician, who has been killed with unusual viciousness and cruelty, is the novel's starting point. As if this were a classic ‘locked room' mystery the site of the crime appears to be completely clean, without any clues, prints or any kind of indication that might make it possible to advance a hypothesis pointing to a solution. The magnetic power of the novel's first few paragraphs draws in the reader, who is from the start of the book intrigued to discover the reason for the brutality of the killing and the solution to an apparently insoluble case. And this magnetism does not slacken for an instant thanks to the skill and competence of Villar's writing, thanks to the realistic explanation of events that is gradually revealed and in particular thanks to the magnificent figure of the main character Leo Caldas.

Caldas, a regular contributor to a local public service radio programme, is a taciturn, solitary police inspector, who suffer from the melancholy caused by the weight of absence characteristic of the genre's legendary heroes, and whose patience in conversation and observation is contrasted with the impetuousness and hostility of his assistant Rafael Estévez, a policeman from Aragón who is unable to adapt to the particular idiosyncrasy of Galicians, full of irony and ambiguity. As well as being essential for solving the puzzle of the saxophonist's death and the strange events it triggers, the interaction of the two characters, both opposite and complementary – occasionally described, especially in the case of Estévez, in an extremely caricatured manner – gives the book a light tone that succeeds in putting a smile on the reader's lips amid the novel's mystery and intrigue.

Caldas and Estévez, who are continually on the go in the way of the European crime novel's contemporary protagonists, move through various parts of Vigo and its coastal environs, which become yet another character in the book. Described with a well-judged touch of local colour – reflecting the nostalgia according with the author's situation as an emigrant, the most universal Galician situation – the surroundings through which the crowds of characters move draw a faithful portrait of present-day Galicia . From gay bars to high society estates, from green landscapes and coves washed by the Atlantic, to jazz clubs, port settings and the legendary taverns in which the regulars greet you as they arrive, and swathed in the eternal Galician rain – which is present in symbolic and enveloping form in the first and last of the novel's paragraphs – the spaces through which the plot passes succeed in giving the book a characteristic ‘local colour' that marks out Domingo Villar's offering compared with the rest of the current batch of crime novels.

Composed with obvious echoes of Henning Mankell's and Andrea Camillieri's detective novels, Ojos de agua seems to have been created to be the start of a series. Preservation of the secrecy that surrounds certain aspects of Leo Caldas's past, as well as the apparent and intentional light touch with which some secondary characters are described who are destined to grow in future offerings, leads us think so. The novel, which is already in its eighth reprint, has been very successful, has deservedly received good reviews and will shortly be filmed, all of which appears to ensure the continuation of the series that is destined, after this first great outing, to become one of Spanish detective literature's outstanding examples.

* Eyes like water

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