Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Spanish crime fiction is as varied as the country is and that makes sense. Each part of Spain has a different culture and some parts have different dialects and languages. Such a place is the autonomous community of Galicia, in northwestern Spain just north of Portugal. Today let’s visit that part of the country and turn the spotlight on Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore.
The main action in the story begins when Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas gets a call from his assistant Rafael Estevez. The body of local fisherman Justo Castelo has been found washed up near the small fishing town of Panxón. At first, the assumption is that he committed suicide by going out on his boat and drowning himself. But little hints soon suggest he might have been murdered. So Caldas and Estevez begin to investigate. Right away they’re confronted by the small-village tendency to be insular. Still, they learn a few things. Conversations with witnesses suggest that Castelo had been acting strangely lately, but there doesn’t seem very much motive for anyone to kill him.
Then Caldas and Estevez learn something odd. On the surface, Justo Castelo lived a very quiet life. A former drug user, he’d cleaned up and was law-abiding. But he didn’t really have friends, he didn’t date and no-one seemed to know him very well. But as Caldas and Estevez look for people who might have been close to Castelo, they learn of two former friends. One is another local fisherman José Arias; the other is Marcos Valverde, who no longer fishes but has remained in the area and become a successful businessman. But even those two say they haven’t been in touch with Castelo very much and don’t know much about his life.
Bit by bit, Caldas and Estevez learn of a tragic incident that Valverde, Castelo and Arias shared. In December 1996, they were on a fishing boat being captained by seasoned and skilled veteran Antonio Sousa. A storm came up, the boat was broken and Sousa drowned. The other three managed to survive, but the tragedy scarred them all. What’s especially odd about the whole thing is that someone seems to know exactly what happened on that night, and seems to be blaming the three surviving sailors for the incident. There’s even talk that Sousa’s ghost has returned to punish the other sailors. Arias and Valverde certainly seem concerned enough that they dissemble about what happened whenever Caldas or Estevez brings it up.
Caldas and Estevez don’t believe in ghosts. But they do know that that tragic night probably has everything to do with Castelo’s death. So they begin to investigate not just the present-day death of Castelo, but also the older tragedy that led to Sousa’s death. In the end, they find out how the past and present are connected and how and why Justo Castelo was killed.
This is a police procedural in many ways. Caldas and Estevez learn the truth about Castelo’s death through talking to witnesses, listening to gossip, getting evidence, working with the forensics team and so on. And throughout the novel, we see that Caldas is devoted to his job and so is Estevez.
But there are a lot of other elements in the novel. One of them is the blend of Caldas’ personal and professional lives. While he’s dealing with this case, he’s also facing the fact that his Uncle Alberto has been hospitalised. Caldas’ father and Alberto are friends as well as brothers, so he is deeply upset by Alberto’s ill health. Caldas is also facing his own feelings of loss as he copes with his break from his former girlfriend Alba. And yet, Caldas doesn’t wallow. He’s actually quite free of the all-too-common personal demons that haunt so many fictional sleuths.
The relationship between Caldas and his father forms another thread that runs through this novel. Caldas’ father started making wine partly as a way of coping with the death of his beloved wife. Now he has a fully-operational vineyard and much prefers being there to being in Vigo, which is too fast-paced for him. Caldas is deeply committed to being a good cop and that means he doesn’t take much time to visit his father, and the two don’t have a lot in common. But underneath their differences they have a bond. In fact Caldas’ father gently tries to get his son to take care of himself and even to reach out to Alba and try to patch things up. For his part, Caldas does respect and love his father and feels guilty every time he forgets to call or visit, or misses a planned meal together.
The Galician setting is another very strong element in this novel. Here’s just a bit of the description of Panxón:
“Opposite the market building, a stone slipway ran down from the street to the water’s edge. Near the top, by the parked cars, a few wooden boats lay beyond the reach of high tide.
Past the slipway, the beach stretched away to the lower slopes of Monte Lourido, forming an immense arc broken only by a creek that flowed into the sea, dividing the beach in two.
Monteferro and the Estelas Islands provided the harbour in Panxón with natural shelter.”
It’s not just the physical setting though that places the reader unmistakeably in Galicia. For instance, one of the realities of life in Galicia is rain. A lot of it. Trust me. So Caldas is just about always prepared for sudden weather changes. There’s also the good wine and food of the area. Especially the wine. Trust me on that too. Those aspects of Galicia are also woven into the novel.
One of the interesting ways in which Villar shows us what Vigo and the surrounding towns are like is by giving us the perspective of an outsider, Rafael Estevez. Estevez is from Zaragoza, in the autonomous community of Aragon, and he’s used to a very different climate, culture and people. For reasons that aren’t detailed, Estevez was transferred to Vigo and sometimes has difficulty understanding the way people communicate and the way the culture works. One of his “pet peeves” for instance is that he thinks Galicians are much too vague when they talk. For instance, here’s a bit of a conversation Estevez has with a waitress while he and Caldas are having lunch one day:
“‘What do you recommend,’ he [Estevez] asked.
‘The squid’s turned out really well,’ said Cristina, adding almost immediately: ‘But the cod’s been popular, too…’
She left her words hanging and Estevez stared, awaiting her verdict. After a few seconds, as none came, he asked:
‘They’re different,’ the waitress said simply.
‘I know that. But one of them must be better,’ insisted Estevez.
‘They’re both really good,’ said Cristina with an open smile. ‘Which do you like best?’
‘Forget it,’ muttered Estevez, realising he wasn’t going to get a definite answer. ‘I’ll have the same as him – the squid. And a salad.’
As soon as Cristina was out of earshot, Estevez complained: ‘I don’t know why the hell I bother asking these people anything.’
He realized that Caldas was staring at him in silence across the table.
‘Sorry, boss,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I forget you’re one of them.’”
Estevez and Caldas are different people, and it’s clear that Estevez still has some things to learn about life in Galicia. But he’s a good cop and Caldas relies on him.
The mystery itself isn’t obvious and the solution to it – the reason for Castelo’s death – is very sad. But the story ties up the “loose ends” of the main plot and readers get the message that for those left behind, life will go on.
Although the story is sad, the bit of dialogue above also highlights another element woven through this novel: humour. And that humour doesn’t just come through in the dialogue. For example, Caldas does a regular radio broadcast Patrolling the Waves, the idea of which is to allow citizens a chance to call in to the program and “talk with a cop” about their questions, complaints and so on. Although it makes Caldas uncomfortable, everyone’s familiar with the broadcast and when he introduces himself, most people say something like, “Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?” His producer Losada has hit on an idea to play a song while Caldas is thinking of what he’ll reply when callers ask their questions. The song drives him crazy, and dealing with it is a running joke in the story.
A police procedural with a likeable (and refreshingly non-stereotypical) sleuth, Death on a Galician Shore features a distinctive setting and culture, a mystery that ties past to present, and a thread of humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Death on a Galician Shore? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 9 July/Tuesday 10 July – Body on the Stage – Bev Robitai
Monday 16 July/Tuesday 17 July – The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond – Peter Lovesey
Monday 23 July/Tuesday 24 July – In the Shadow of the Glacier – Vicki Delany