Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blinded By The Light

We do so love our crime series featuring an intriguing detective, especially if the stories are played out in exotic foreign locations. Witness the success of Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Aurelio Zen in Venice and, stretching the point slightly, Rebus in Edinburgh. To this august list, we should surely add the name of Javier Falcón from Seville, the hot, historical capital of southern Spain, who is the central personality in Robert Wilson’s thrilling sequence of four books (tetralogy for classicists, quadrilogy for modern marketeers).

Falcón is a charismatic homicide detective, but he is also a complex and interesting character with a number of faults. Withdrawn and solitary, his brooding agonies of self-doubt embody man’s moral struggle and human frailties, as his journey of self-discovery remind you of the psychological depths to which Adam Dalgliesh is subjected by PD James. Although a Sevillano, Falcón is still an outsider in his own city, having worked extensively in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza.

"Biker Grove"

Even if he is a cultured, intelligent man, well versed in the ways of the world, he is only sporadically wise. The only thing extraordinary about him appears to be his ordinariness. Again very much like Wallander and Rebus, any knowledge is hard-earned, resulting at least as much from mistakes and bruises, both of the physical and mental variety, as from brilliant insights. In these stories, detective work is described as an attritional process, with Falcón slowly but surely guiding us through the maze. In fact, he is caught in an intricate web on a number of levels: criminal, personal and historical.

Robert Wilson is a British crime writer currently resident in Portugal, the author of many stylish thrillers that have been enhanced by placing them in glamorous foreign countries. His first four books were magical, enthralling pieces of detective noir (geddit) set in West Africa, while Portugal provided the backdrop for both “A Small Death in Lisbon”, the winner of the prestigious Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel in 1999, and “The Company of Strangers”. More recently, he has been playing “Spanish songs in Andalucia” while composing perhaps his best-known work, the Javier Falcón quartet.

"Shadow boxing"

The first book in the series is “The Blind Man of Seville”, which is a wonderfully literary detective novel, albeit with dark and disturbing overtones, despite its sunny, colourful setting, that focuses on Falcón’s hunt for a vicious murderer. The first gruesome killing symbolically takes place in Holy Week, when Raul Jimenez, a leading restaurateur with a shady past, is found bound and gagged in front of his television with his eyelids cut off. Not only has he been brutally tortured, but his body is also covered with self-inflicted wounds, which testify to his struggles to avoid the images that he has been forced to watch. When confronted by this horrific scene, the normally implacable Javier Falcón feels inexplicably afraid, asking himself what the victim had seen that could have been so terrible. The investigation into the murders lead Falcón to the journals of his late father, an acclaimed artist, causing him to unearth shocking revelations about the past, both Francisco Falcón’s and his own, thus bringing him to an emotional crisis.

When we first meet Javier Falcón, he is under intense pressure and is in a poor mental state, almost psychologically impaired. He lives alone in the splendid home of his deceased father, but the comfortable surroundings offer him little solace. Unable to get along with his more sociable Spanish colleagues, he is nevertheless obsessed with work, even though his career has stalled. All regard him as a cold, repressed individual, not surprising as he has no friends or lovers, his wife having walked out dismissing him with the contemptuous, “You have no heart”. He wears close-fitting suits, ties and lace-up shoes, as do most fashionable Spaniards, but in his case they also keep him restrained like a straitjacket made by the finest tailors. However, for all his problems, we appreciate the quality of his intelligence and even empathise with his troubles, sensing that at his core he is a genuinely decent man.

"Mine's a Rioja"

Like “A Small Death in Lisbon”, this book showcases Wilson’s technical skills at running a narrative across different time periods, as it alternates between the present day perspective of the police inquiry and the historical revelations from Francisco’s diary entries. In fact, the book addresses three investigations: the first a straightforward police procedural into the murders; the second a penetrating character study into Javier’s mind; and the third a literary study of the journals. The killings are obviously quite sickening, but Wilson’s multi-layered approach, where he forensically dissects the lives of his characters, peeling away their self-deception, discovers even uglier insights into their motives. His claustrophobic focus zooms in on shameful family secrets that reveal themselves to be more ghastly than the most sadistic torture scene – and there are plenty of those to occupy Falcón’s squad.

Falcón informs the widow that the murder is “more extraordinary than any I have seen in my career”, and it is certainly one of the most brutal openings to any crime novel. It is true that Wilson pulls no punches in presenting uncomfortable images of unflinching violence, though there is a poetic edge to his prose that makes even the most merciless scene absolutely compelling. In fact, the author would argue that nothing overly graphic is actually on the page, and he is only guilty of encouraging the reader’s vivid imagination, especially as he often depicts violence through the eyes of a victim, which is a very uncomfortable place to be. His mastery of pacing is evident and he is at his best when ratcheting up and sustaining tension, so the book succeeds admirably as a classic suspense story.

"Art for art's sake"

However, where it really scores is as a brilliantly conceived psychological thriller, the psychology in question being that of the lead detective. The combination of physical and (undisclosed) mental torture fills the reader’s mind with questions, so we are left as confused and intrigued as Falcón himself. Wilson is not an author who is afraid to demand a lot from his audience and any revelations only follow numerous cunning twists in the plot. The orchestrators of evil deeds are not blindingly (see what I did there?) obvious, but are in many ways more frightening than the standard literary psychopaths, because they are so plausibly immersed in everyday life. However, all the villains are driven by reason, not of the intellectual variety, but more by damage that they have sustained at the hands of others, which has broken the bonds of trust. In terms of motivating hatred and aggressive revenge, potent reasons here include love withheld, innocence defiled and vulnerability abused.

The book is as much a study of the lead investigator’s character as it is the story of a horrific crime with the adventure to find the killer taking Falcón on a painful journey of his own. Increasingly, it becomes clear to him that the murders are linked to his own past and unexplained deaths in his family, forcing him to confront ghosts that he has long kept buried. Although he tries desperately to hold everything together, his precious composure begins to unravel and his mental health declines to the point that he becomes a detective “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. As his personal demons are exposed, including the untimely death of his mother, Falcón must dig down to his very foundations to see what he’s made of – and that makes him a truly mesmerising character. He realises that this is not just a hunt for a seemingly omniscient murderer, but also a search for his missing heart.

An old photograph at the murder scene prompts Javier to read a set of journals left by his famous father, the artist Francisco Falcón. These diaries are a real gem: terrifically frank, full of drama and confession, they are similar to Alan Clark’s, but with more paintbrushes, guns and carnal acts (if you can believe that). Francisco had always been an important person in Javier’s life, but he discovers that he never really knew the father he had so dearly loved. Born in Tangiers, Wilson describes him as a “half-mad, demonic, charismatic, crafty, weak, vulnerable, brutal, sensual, chilling, amusing maniac”.

The discovery of how Francisco’s wicked acts, including atrocious crimes in the Spanish Civil War and unlimited hedonism involving catamites in North Africa, helped shape the motivations for the current spate of killing holds at least as much fascination as the identity of the murderer, especially as they provide important clues. Although long dead, Francisco Falcón is a magnetic figure, dominating the story through the sheer energy of his journals, which he calls a “small history of pain” – that will soon become Javier’s, as he has to re-assess who he really is. All his old certainties are undermined: does he really know his parents? If everything that he had previously believed to be true turns out to be false, where does that leave him?

"Are you sitting comfortably?"

Wilson has said that the book is “about our ability to distinguish between appearance and reality, the extent to which we can believe what our own eyes tell us”. Although the theme of the deceptiveness of appearances is far from original, it is explored here in unusual depth and in many guises. Seville itself encapsulates this contrast with Wilson describing it as “an apparently beautiful place full of happy, animated people whose reality is no different to the urban woes of any other city”. The taut and terrifying Falcón thrillers turn this sunny Spanish city upside down to reveal its seamy underside: petty crime, drugs, racial tensions, corruption and, yes, people get killed. As a vivid example, a prostitute comes to fear “when the shadows move”, the moments when darkness acquires a life of its own. The novel also has a strong art theme running through it with characters not just creating art, but also worshipping it, buying it, stealing it and even inspiring it, and, of course, art offers a multiplicity of dimensions – as Francisco shows us.

The city of Seville is almost a star in its own right, Wilson really bringing it to life. During the day it shimmers with heat and vitality, while the nightlife has a tangible feel with its crowded, smoky bars and mysterious, dark side streets. Wilson has a rare ability to draw the reader in completely to the point where you can almost taste the atmosphere of the world that the protagonists inhabit. As well as being highly evocative, the city’s characteristics are reflected in Javier’s experiences: “The narrow, winding, cobbled streets of Seville became indistinguishable from his anguished mental alleyways. They all formed part of the texture of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón’s collapsing inner world”. Similarly, the bullfight mirrored the intricacies of the interplay between investigator and killer. However, Falcón’s straitlaced, humourless demeanour is in marked contrast to the riot of colour of Seville’s fiesta.

"Where the streets have no name"

The Spanish backdrop is crucial to the Falcón series with Wilson also wanting to “show where modern Spain had come from”. In particular, he has posed the question, “Did this vibrant, artistic, animated, sociable people have something to hide?” If you want a flavour of Spanish history, then you have come to the right place, as the series covers inter alia the Spanish Civil War, involvement in World War II, nationalism in Tangiers, modern art, the 2004 Madrid bombings, Islamic terrorism, the Russian mafia, the Spanish Intelligence Agency and corruption in the construction trade and local government.

Wilson’s ability to dig beneath the skin to explore psychological and emotional nuances is not restricted to Javier Falcón, as he introduces a host of fascinating characters, who feature throughout the series. An interesting relationship develops between Javier and Consuelo Jimenez, the blue-eyed enigma, who first appears as the primary suspect in the murder. Even more important is Javier’s history with the judge Esteban Calderón, who has hooked up with his ex-wife Ines. In “The Blind Man”, Falcón greatly respects Calderón, who expertly manages the investigation, while Falcón’s mental state deteriorates. Initially Calderón appears to be a charismatic man of integrity and courage, who reveres art and is extremely intelligent. However, he is later revealed to be very different: a womaniser, a wife beater and a coward, who would do anything to preserve his exalted status. Yet again, we are faced with the theme of appearance versus reality.

"Side effect"

As you might infer from the title, this is a book all about seeing, but the irony is that Falcón and many others do not see things at all clearly. Most of the characters are blind in some way, whether to a painful past or their own potential for happiness. This is particularly true for Falcón. His eyes are fine; it’s his soul that cannot see the truth of his haunted history, which prevents him from seeing what’s in front of him. Blindness is a recurring topic with allusions to Francisco being worried about going blind and Javier’s therapist, the perceptive Alicia Aguardo, actually being blind.

There are four books in the Javier Falcón saga. Each one has its own stand-alone investigation, and is distinct rather than formulaic, but the series is held together by an enduring theme with inter-locking story lines and characters. Some of the questions raised in the first book do not get fully answered until the last, so the way to get most out of them is (understandably) to start at the beginning and work your way through the books in order. Wilson has said that he wanted to see how a man could change, taking Falcón on a specific journey from one point in his life to another. Normally middle-aged men never change, which is the reason why Falcón goes through such a mental upheaval in “The Blind Man of Seville”, as this sets the scene for his future development with the subsequent books being all about his rebuilding.

In “The Silent and the Damned” (published as “The Vanished Hands” in the US), Falcón learns the art of communication and we see him start to employ it in his police work. In “The Hidden Assassins” he is back at the top of his game in terms of running his squad and managing a huge and complex investigation, greatly respected by the Seville community, but there’s still something (or rather someone) missing. The lady who puts a spring in his (Spanish) step in “The Ignorance of Blood” is the sexy Consuelo, thus completing the transformation of Javier Falcón.

If you will pardon the pun, “The Blind Man of Seville” is an eye-opening read. Not only is it crime writing at its very best, but it’s also a lot more. Part tense thriller, part compelling examination of the effects of the past on the present (and part Andalucian travelogue), this book is a marvel of construction: commencing with a truly shocking murder, the pace of the investigation is at first steady, then quickens as the journals are introduced, before a breathless last lap as the revelations come thick and fast. If you disagree with me, you’re welcome to your opinion, but remember that there’s none so blind as those who will not see.

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