European crime fiction in the crosshairs
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Fixed Grimace

Ley Garrote*
Joaquín Guerrero-Casasola

Roca, 2007, 205 pages

Javier Sanchez Zapatero
Translation: Karen vincent-Jones

 

Ley Garrote (The Law of the Garrotte), winner of the Ist L'H Confidencial Prize for Best International Crime Novel, awarded jointly by L'Hospitalet Town Council, Barcelona, and the Roca publishing house, introduces Joaquín Guerrero-Casasola to the Spanish literary stage. Born in Mexico but domiciled in Spain for many years, Guerrero-Casasola is not, however, a newcomer to the world of literature, as a long career as a scriptwriter has taken him to such far-flung- and widely different- places as El Salvador and Serbia while writing television scripts. His televisual experience shows in the novel, which is extremely visual and proceeds at breakneck pace. With no time wasted and no danger of boring the reader, The Law of the Garrotte, which reads easily and entertainingly, provides a dizzying succession of events which are as entertaining as they are crude, and as acidic as they are violent. Softened by the irony and humour of his style, the events narrated by the author in the book end up being so terrible and so hard to take that our initial laughter freezes into a fixed grimace. As in the novels of James Ellroy or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the suffocating pressure of the social environment, dreadful and inhuman, tinges the entire story with a darkness devoid of soul.

The constant factors in the book are the main character, Gil Baleares, and the troubling and violent setting of Mexico City, seen as a true asphalt jungle in which everyday life is a fight for survival. The events of the novel unfold when the main character, an ex-policeman turned low-life private investigator, is hired to investigate a kidnapping. Short of money to buy the new car he has set his heart on, a Japanese make he is obsessed with, he takes on the case thinking that it will provide him with the solution to his money problems and the fulfilment of his four-wheeled dream.

However, what starts off as a simple professional assignment for the ironic and talkative investigator- whose crazy behaviour sometimes reminds us of the unhinged and nameless hero of some of Eduardo Mendoza's novels- becomes difficult to resolve, as we might guess, due to the bizarre conditions imposed by the kidnappers before they will release the victim, and ends up by becoming a personal quest as which draws Baleares more and more deeply into an investigation complicated by corrupt policemen, strange law officials who hamper his enquiries, the bizarre behaviour of the victim's family and phantoms from the past. All of these create a malicious fog of violence that blurs the boundaries of legality and enables Guerrero-Casasola to provide a critical view of Mexican reality. As in classic works in the genre, the city itself, a harsh and hostile place, becomes a character in the book. The frantic everyday life of Mexico City, a perfect setting for a noir novel, seems like the only possible milieu for Gil Baleares' misadventures.

Among the minor characters who swarm throughout the book, one stands out in particular: Ángel “El Perro” Baleares, the hero's father, a former brutal and corrupt policeman who swaggered freely through Mexico City in the 70s and now, stricken by Alzheimers, maintains a surreal love-hate relationship with his son. His illness gives rise to some of the wildest and most outlandish incidents in the novel, while at the same time his gaze is presented as one of the most lucid in the novel, thus demonstrating that frequently the most distorting lenses can show things as they really are.

Using boxing terminology, Julio Cortázar used to say, in a now famous quotation, that the novel won on points but the short story won by a knock-out. The irresistable pull and the intense, deafening rhythm of The Law of the Truncheon bears out the Argentine author's dictum. Entertaining, overwhelming and stripped-down, de Joaquín Guerrero-Casasola's first novel wins like the great masters of the ring, with a massive knockout punch you can't ignore.

* The Law of the Truncheon


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