Spanish Mysteries

The first home-grown mystery in Spain appeared very early - Pedro Antonio de Alarcon published El clavo y otros relatas de misterio y crimen (The Nail and Other Tales of Mystery and Crime) in 1853, only 13 years after Poe’s invention of the genre (El Clavo, now a Spanish classic, was produced as a movie in 1944 and published in English in 1997 ( Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, Pa.). The genre, however, was not very popular until after the fall of the Franco regime in 1975 and has become extremely popular in the last few decades. Spanish mysteries are distinguished by some very unique characteristics. Spanish settings are overwhelmingly urban and the language of the stories is filled with the patois of the streets and the underworld. Most works have a very political perspective and the police (as well as the privileged) are portrayed very negatively. The detectives or the heroes are nearly always defective, ineffective or seriously flawed. Women authors and sleuths are nearly non-existent and, interestingly, Spain is frequently portrayed as somewhat inferior and backward vis-à-vis the rest of Western Europe.

Alarcon's "Nail" was followed by the publication of many translations of Sherlock Holmes and other British and American stories.  Local imitators of this material also began to publish at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  These products, referred to as "Kiosk Literature" (sold in kiosks on the street very cheaply) mainly featured crime in foreign and exotic places.

By the end of the 19th Century, Emilia Pardo Bazan wrote a very influential story entitled "A Drop of Blood" (in Spanish, La gota de sangre, Madrid, Ediciones Internationale Universitario, 1998; see also Bazan’s Short Stories, N.Y. Holt and Co., 1933) in which an amateur sleuth solves a crime in spite of the slow-witted police. Also, at this time true crime reports appeared with the publication of El Mundo del Crimen (The World of Crime) in 1888 by Daniel Freixa y Marti and La Policia Moderna. Secretos de la Criminalidad Contemporanea (Modern Police: Secrets of Contemporary Criminality) in 1893.

In 1914, Joaquin Belda published "Quien Disparo?" (Who Shot?), a very popular spoof of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. In 1916, Enrique Lopez Alarcon and Jose Ignacio de Alberti wrote a well received play entitled "Sebastian el Bufando or the Theft of the Street of Fortune". The play was subsequently published in Madrid in a kiosk series, "La Novela Policiaca". The hero is a jewel thief and the foil is a plodding policeman. Thus we have an antihero in the Raffles style, a type that became very popular in Spanish crime fiction.

During the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent Franco Dictatorship publication of fiction in general was curtailed and, although mysteries were published, they were subjected to heavy censorship and, of course, most were police procedurals (crime fiction never fares well under authoritarian regimes except in a manipulated, state-supporting form). E.C. Delmar published a number of mysteries in which the hero is a police inspector and the publishing house Coleccion Misterio put out rather conventional stories by a number of local authors. An interesting exception in this period is a novel by Mario Lacruz entitled, El Inocente. It is a very literate and clever story in which a manipulative police inspector in a rural area (of a country clearly not identified as Spain!) uses an accidental death to falsely pin a murder on an innocent man.

In the 1950s and 60s Francisco Garcia Pavon wrote a number of mysteries that featured Chief of Munincipal Guard Manual Gonzalez "Plinio". The "Plinio" books were very popular and won a number of prizes and even some acclaim abroad ( see Los Liberales — in English- Barcelona, Ediciones Destino,1971). Plinio is a very non-heroic detective working in a small city who’s premonitions and hunches are more important than scientific and logical deduction. Pavon has been referred to as the Spanish Proust of the common people.

In the 1970s Manuel Vasquez Montalban came to the fore with a rather unconventional P.I. named Pepe Cavallo. Pepe is a violent, former Marxist, former CIA agent with a call-girl assistant. His hard- boiled novels were nearly all set in foreign locales and they were good enough to win a number of Spanish and French literary prizes. Vasquez Montalban is often considered to be an author in the vanguard of the postmodern movement (see Murder in the Central Committee, N.Y., Serpent’s Tail, 1996). At about the same time Eduardo Mendoza published a number of novels featuring a paranoid-schizophrenic as the crime solver. The stories are satirical, violent and depict the police as corrupt and Spain as a second-rate country (see The Truth About the Savolta Case, N.Y., Pantheon, 1992).

Between 1979 and 1983 Andreu Martin, a Catalan from Barcelona, wrote seven, hard-boiled, violent novels in a series entitled Circulo del Crimen (the Crime Circle). They are all police procedurals in which the hero, Javier Lallana, is the only honest cop among a corrupt force (see Barcelona Connection, Barcelona, Ediciones de Magrana, 1988). At the same time, Jorge Martinez Reverte created a journalist investigator — Julio Galvez — who tackles police corruption and solves political crimes in Madrid.

The first female mystery writer — Lourdes Ortiz — in 1979 created a female P.I. of questionable morals, although young, beautiful and single (see Picadora Mortal - in Spanish - Madrid, Sedmay, 1992). It was by all accounts quite mediocre and, consequently, a one-book stint!!

The 1980s was certainly a boom period for detective fiction as many writers produced a large amount of fiction for a demanding market. Even the mainstream fiction luminary Juan Marse contributed a few rather dark and egnimatic mysteries. Among the most prominent mystery writers was Julian Ibanez who won a Moriarity prize in 1983 for Llamada Siboney, (Madrid, Jucar, 1985).

In the 1990s, Arturo Perez-Reverte, a journalist and historical fiction writer burst upon the mystery scene. He published the much-acclaimed Flanders Panel (Bantam Books, N.Y., 1996) and a series of historical, intellectual and brilliant novels that attracted attention around the world. His novel, Club Dumas (Vintage International, N.Y. 1998). is a bibliophile’s dream and was used as the basis for Roman Polansky’s film, The Ninth Gate. His other novels include The Fencing Master (Harcourt brace, N.Y. 1999) and The Seville Communion (Harcourt Brace, N.Y., 1998).

The Spanish mystery represents an unusually important contribution to the genre although sadly very few of the works have been translated into English. Regarding the Spanish tradition of crime fiction, the literary specialist Ilan Stavanos notes that good does not always triumph over evil in the "ambiguous morality of the Hispanic world".


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