A Death in Valencia is the second in the series of crime novels featuring the ever-melancholy Chief Inspector Max Cámara of Valencia's Policía Nacional. The first novel, Or the Bull Kills You, is also an excellent read, and yet a reader can enjoy A Death in Valencia without having read the first installment, a rare treat. After reading the first book, I was more than ready to see what Max Cámara was up to next.
Crime novels tend to be full of stale concepts and predictable results. Jason Webster has done a tremendous job of creating an original character, with his own strengths and weaknesses, and an ability to place his own personal sense of mistrust into the tasks he performs, in order to see through the many challenges he faces on the streets of Valencia.
Max Cámara is suffering in a number of ways. He is beginning to question his existence - his estrangement with Almudena, and the end of a brief and destructive relationship with Alicia continue to haunt him. When he is faced with investigating the death of paella chef Pep Roures, he finds similarities in the life of the well-respected man and himself. His personal isolation is taking a toll on him, as it did on the life of the man left dumped in the sea. When the investigation is interrupted by the kidnapping of abortionist Sofía Bodí, again he finds his own beliefs affecting the way he feels about the victims and perpetrators of the crimes happening around him. Added the mix is a personal tragedy, a result of negligence and corruption that mar the city he lives in and Cámara finds him more and more following the anti-establishment thoughts of his anarchist grandfather. Throughout the book, small details constantly emerge about Max's personal life, and it gives his personality more depth, without veering off course from the plot. Max is cynical, persistent, pragmatic, intelligent and most of all, likeable.
The magnificent city of Valencia is brilliantly captured throughout the book, from the stifling heat, to the vibrant community spirit of the El Cabanyal, to the gritty reality of the issues facing the city and its inhabitants. The oppressive mayor Emilia, and the crew of vile politicians who surround her are thoroughly described and portrayed, giving an understanding of how it is to live under laws governed by egotism, greed and indulgence. The struggles between the Cuerpo Nacional de Policía and the Guardia Civil are also well written - the difficulties faced by having multiple law enforcers who fail to work together is explained, and yet is not over complicated for readers who do not understand the years of struggles between the groups.
The author manages to weave in so many factors that make up life in Spain today, such as the ghosts of the past that have still not been dealt with, leaving the conflict between the left and right-wing sympathisers as an open wound. The fight for traditional community spirit against the desire for money, prestige and power push back and forth in El Cabanyal. The streets are choked with supporters of the Pope, all there to see him speak in the city while the shameless politicians who break their own laws grease their way into favour on the back of beliefs they do not follow or believe in. The struggles that suffocate Valencia leave Max Cámara not even recognising himself in a world of lies and ignorance.
The book dwells on the life of a paella chef, a great Valencian tradition, and the first book delved in bullfighting and its popularity in the city, two well-known subjects. With this, the potential for cliches to pop up was a possibility for readers who know Valencia well. The author has instead given both subjects a fresh take, leaving conventional notions aside. I look forward to seeing which Valencian subjects are given new life in coming novels from Jason Webster.