Pushkin Press can always be relied upon to produce interesting and high quality books and I was pleased to receive Barcelona Shadows from them as a review copy. My praise of this book is nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t pay for it – I reject many books that come my way, but this one is really good.
In the early part of the last century, Barcelona was horrified by the crimes of a the real-life Enriqueta Marti, a child murderer and procuress. The city’s population had been swollen by wave after wave of peasants and working class people, together with soldiers returning from the Moroccan Wars. Atrocious slums developed and the lack of employment meant that everyone was trying to scrape a living by whatever means they had at their disposal.
Among this maelstrom of poverty and desperation, Enriquesta Marti began to horrify the population with a series of child abductions and murders, the full of extent of which only became known when she was discovered and arrested. It is possible that she was the most prolific murderer every active in Spain, so many were the remnants of small bodies found in her apartment and other properties. The final tally of her murders is now unlikely ever to be known.
Marc Pastor, a Catalan writer and also a professional crime scene investigator, has written a novel based on the short period leading up to the arrest of Enriqueta Marti. Amazingly, he finds a way of doing this which does not terrify the reader with the gruesomeness of the crimes, by focusing on a policemen, Moisès Corvo who is investigating the disappearances, along with his sidekick Malsano. Despite the seriousness of their quest, Corvo and Malsano keep up a nice flow of scurrilous banter going as they travel around the dark places of the city. Corvo is a well drawn character who would have the making of a fine fictional detective if Mark Pastor felt inclined to write another novel set in Barcelona. We read a lot about his back story, his child-less marriage and his disappointed wife. He has a profound world-weariness but his detective work keeps him going, along with relationships with women of the night and a never-empty bottle on the table.
As with so many good detective stories, Corvo’s bosses wish to take him off the investigation due to lack of resources and more “important” crimes (if you’ve watched Breaking Bad you’ll know what I’m talking about). In this case, well, there are so many children in the city and the missing ones tend to be children of whores. Who knows, their mothers may well have sold them, or just given up on them due to their general sluttishness? Fortunately Corvo is undaunted and carries on regardless.
During the investigations we travel to some hovels and slums to rival Dickens or Balzac, and we meet characters who deserve a book of their own. The people are superstitious, believing in vampires, golems and evil spirits. Magic spells and potions are their daily currency, but what else is to be expected of such a down at hell community of hopeless cases?
Along the way we meet some truly vile characters, Dr Josef von Baumgarten – a procurer of corpses to aid his dubious research into the criminality, Bernat Argensó, an ageing paedophile who still professes the purity of his love for children, and the young Blackmouth, Enriqueta’s assistant who never fails to disgust those he encounters in his travels round the city.
Marc Pastor is a great fan of Gothically-flavoured fiction by 19th century writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe and this novel is best seen alongside those of his forebears. Although the story is horrific, the author makes a brilliant work of fiction out of the bare bones of the case. It would have been easy for him to make his book a litany of pure horror, but he restrains his pen and turns it into a sort of pastiche of horror fiction, funny at times and always full of word pictures which make his scenes stand out from the page.
The translation from the Catalan was made by Mara Faye Lethem who is to be congratulated on preserving the freshness and ingenuity of the writing in this English-language version.
Here is an interview with Marc Pastor talking about his book.