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The Late Review: Barcelona Shadows

15th Mar, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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First published in Catalan in 2008, Marc Pastor's novel Barcelona Shadows was translated into English by Mara Faye Lethem and released in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2014.

The story is set in Barcelona in 1911, a city of contrasts, incredible wealth rubbing shoulders with heartbreaking poverty. Children start to disappear from the city streets, but as they are only the progeny of prostitutes and beggars nobody in authority is that fussed, except for Inspector Moisès Corvo, a man who frequents prostitutes himself, and whose wife lost a baby. As rumours of a vampire abound and the city moves closer to panic, the authorities try to keep a lid on the affair, but Corvo persists in his hunt for a brutal murderer despite pressure from above to drop the case and accept the official story, that nothing untoward has taken place.

The book is based on the true story of Enriqueta Marti, the so-called Vampire of Barcelona, a prostitute turned brothel keeper, who abducted young children for the benefit of some of her clients and had a profitable sideline in preparing philtres and medicines for the upper classes, using the blood of the same children, and as a result was accorded a degree of protection from the law.

I've seen Barcelona Shadows described as a work of Gothic fiction and certainly it's a case that could be made. The book opens with a scene of grave robbing and ends with a twist taken from the worst nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course there is the suggestion of vampirism and asides into the 'science' of phrenology. Nor are we spared any of the horror, with one scene regarding which readers are advised to skip past if of an overly sensitive disposition. Pastor's master stroke though is to have the figure of Death as his narrator, talking directly to the reader with a jaunty voice and confiding tone that wins us over, but at the same time knowing the back story of all the characters and their ultimate fates, so that the whole thing seems almost preordained. There are moments when, in another winning trick, Death interviews various characters and gets them to tell their own part of the story, and at the end he is the one who gives us Corvo's ultimate fate.

Gothic considerations aside, there is some splendid characterisation. Corvo is a tarnished knight, not really knowing why he acts as he does, but for once wanting to pull something from the wreckage of his life, for his job to actually mean something. There is much guilt in his past, so that in a way his visits to ladies of the night and estrangement from his wife can be seen as a form of self-punishment, a way of mourning the loss of his child. The other policemen are similarly well-drawn, albeit not in such great depth, with partner Malsano, whose exchanges with Corvo are a delight, loyal if not really agreeing with Corvo, and people like Golem and Babyface adding a unique edge with their interview techniques. These are pre-code policemen, with rough and ready methods of the end justifies the means variety, and never giving a thought to the health of those they question. They wouldn't look out of place in a James Ellroy novel.

The monster at the centre of this web of evil is Enriqueta Marti. Expert opinion seems divided as to the degree of her criminal activity and whether she was a monster or simply a mentally unwell woman who carried the can for the crimes of her betters. Pastor has a foot firmly planted in the monster camp, portraying Enriqueta as a sociopath, unable to see other people as anything except tools for her to exploit and use. She thinks she is above the law and acts accordingly, though equally she can be winning when it serves her purposes. Add to that her coterie of hangers on, the father and husband who help her, the lovers and child criminals who also assist, each of them given breadth and depth, attitudes and credible motivations for acting as Enriqueta wishes. And at the same time there is the suggestion that in some ways she is herself a victim, that she has been made this way by others and is, in kidnapping children, trying to compensate for loss in her own life. It is up to the reader to judge if there is substance to this view, or if it is simply Enriqueta making excuses and finding justification for her behaviour. At a stretch you could even make the case that both she and Corvo are equally driven by the things they have lost, though in different directions.

Pastor's depiction of Barcelona in 1911 has real substance. He gives us a city where panic is bubbling away beneath the surface, where recent tensions are only too ready to surface again. It's a world in which extreme poverty sits alongside great wealth, with Corvo's visits to the luxury casinos and private brothels of the privileged few contrasting strongly with the squalor he sees every day on the streets. Even as Corvo bears down on those at the bottom of society, those at the top flaunt their crimes and sense of invulnerability. They dress in the finest clothes and live behind walls in sumptuous villas, attempting to control their reality and at the same time completely detached from it. The words that fall from their lips are coated in honey, but there is no mistaking the implicit threat or doubting their willingness to follow through, as Corvo finds to his cost.

Barcelona Shadows was a fascinating and rewarding book, a crime fiction that delighted in doing things differently, pitched in the darkest colours and effectively blurring the boundaries with horror fiction. Highly recommended.

 

 

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