Crime waves

Southern Seas

Manuel Vasquez Montalban <em>Serpent's Tail, 224pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 1852427000

You need two things to appreciate the remarkable fiction of Manuel Vasquez Montalban: a passing acquaintance with Spanish history and a passion for gastronomic extravagance. Montalban is Spain's most prolific and influential writer, with more than 20 detective novels and a weekly political column in El PaIs to his name. A long-term member of the Communist Party, he lives in Barcelona, like his great creation, the gourmand detective Pepe Carvalho, who stars - and that is definitely the word - in each of his crime thrillers. What Michael Dibdin has done for Italy from an Englishman's perspective, Montalban has done for Spain with the heart and soul of an insider. Twenty years after it was first written, Southern Seas has become the latest of this magnificent series to be published in English; like its predecessors, it remains both a skilled detective story and a profound commentary on the changing face of post-cold-war Europe.

Carvalho is one of the genre's most original creations. Like most fictional private investigators, he has a sidekick; his, though, is not a colleague but a personal cook. Like most, he is at heart a loner; yet somehow he manages to find himself morally and emotionally responsible for an ageing prostitute and a dog. And, like most, he drinks heavily, but with a choosiness that sets him apart; for Carvalho, wine must always have a surname and a Christian name and never come in litre bottles.

His past is one of moral ambiguity and has spanned four years in the CIA and some strong links to the Spanish Communist Party. In fact, the rooting of contemporary Spain so inextricably in its violent past is Montalban's most notable achievement. The terrifying reprisals and mass executions of the Franco regime, the censorship and torture which preceded legalisation of the Communist Party, still fill the shadows. There are chilling indicators of Carvalho's history in the most mundane of moments - when getting his hair cut, he watches the barber's hands because, in prison, he was always shaved by a convicted murderer - and although Barcelona's buildings may have had a democratic facelift, they remain, for him, grim fortresses of repression. Yet as a capitalist democracy forces rapid change on the world he knew and understood, Carvalho misses the certainties of the past. Facing middle age with disillusionment, his political beliefs have become as faded as the badges still worn by activists, and he has all but forgotten that he was once a communist. These days, his only patriotism is gastronomic.

Against this political and personal backdrop, Southern Seas investigates the murder of a rich industrialist, Stuart Pedrell, who disappears on his way to Polynesia in search of the visionary spirit of Paul Gauguin. Far from finding a new world, Pedrell ends up stabbed to death on a pile of rubble in a Barcelona suburb, accompanied only by a fragment of paper bearing the words: "No more will anyone carry me south." All the elements are there, but this is no ordinary crime novel: people are more important than plot, which often serves as a vehicle for some brilliant character sketches - the butler-accountant who studies medieval history in the evenings, or the business partner with an obsession for ridding his body of toxins at a German clinic. More importantly, the killer is not pursued for the sake of the victim, but as an attempt to justify the system in a young, confused and fragile society. "Every murder," says Carvalho, "reveals that humanism has no existence in the real world. Society is interested in the dead man only in order to find the murderer and inflict an 'exemplary' punishment." Carvalho's world, then, is less a fictional one, where the law is upheld as an ideal, than one where justice becomes just another exercise in government.

Nevertheless, Carvalho oscillates between ennui and a commitment to principle, between a wry humour and a jaded cynicism borne of working as a private eye in a society where women still commit adultery but where their husbands don't care enough to look for them. His answer is to follow Brecht's philosophy of first belly, then morality; apart from anything, Southern Seas is an ode to Catalonia's culinary prowess. From paella, omelettes and obscure regional pates, to seafood, gazpacho and tripe, Carvalho's stomach is his guard against an older and wiser city which is increasingly full of alcohol-free beer, alcohol-free wine and alcohol-free sherry. Sanitisation, we learn, is the root of all evil.

Carvalho may use books from his library as firelighters because he no longer finds them enriching, but there is a beautiful homage to literary traditions in much of Montalban's writing, as well as an ironic awareness of his place in a particular genre. Those looking for a straight detective novel may well become impatient with Carvalho's meandering style of investigation, but as a fictional portrait of the relationship between crime and society, these books are unsurpassed.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser