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Winning Barcelona Caper
on 11 December 2008
Any crime writer seeking to use Barcelona as a setting must contend with the extremely long shadow cast by the godfather of Spanish crime, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose 16-book "Pepe Carvalho" series, which is also set there. Fortunately, Solana manages to make the city sing in the service of her odd couple detecting duo. Eduard and Borja are the middle-aged co-directors of a slightly shady firm of "fixers" consisting of themselves, a fictional secretary represented by an artfully draped shawl and timely spritzes of perfume, and a small entry room with a fancy faux door to their perpetually "under construction" main office.
Their off-the-books quasi detective agency runs on an artfully cultivated reputation for total discretion, which allows them to float into the upper reaches of society while not having to do anything actually illegal. In this debut, the two are asked by a prominent politician to investigate how his wife came to pose for a painting he knew nothing about (the subtext being a question about her marital fidelity). For a while, this allows Eduard and Borja to drive around Barcelona in a borrowed Smart car, trailing her to a succession of upscale shops, fancy cafes, and hairdressers. However, when she turns up poisoned, they suddenly realize that they've landed themselves in something rather more serious than they expected (or are really prepared to deal with).
Meanwhile, there's a nice domestic backdrop to all this, as we meet Eduard's wife and children, and Borja attempts to escape the romantic attentions of Eduard's sister-in-law. Eduard is the prototypical Watson, narrating the story in the wake of his more flamboyant and risk-taking partner, living a stable family life while Eduard lives in an apartment provided by his married girlfriend. The two are different enough to be good foils to each other, yet not so much so that their friendship strains the reader's credulity -- and oh yes, did I mention, they're secretly twins!
There's a very nice comic streak throughout the tale, and the elements (blackmail, false names, switcheroos, etc.) are quite old-fashioned in many ways. And the story unfolds quite nicely, allowing the author to tweak the noses of Barcelona's upper crust and political elite, while delivering a good sense of the city. The only letdown is in the final unmasking of the murderer, which strikes the only false note in the book and is somewhat disappointing, given the quality of the rest of the book. The book appears to be the launch of a series, as the secret brothers are a nice platform for further adventures, and there remains a great deal of murkiness to their shared history that seems destined to be revealed.