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by Domingo Villar and Martin Schifino, trans.
Arcadia Books/Euro Crime, November 2009
167 pages
ISBN: 1906413258

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Vigo (Spain) Police Inspector Leo Caldas is not prepared for the state of the corpse that he is summoned to view in a luxurious condo on an island just off shore. The handsome young jazz saxophonist with piercing blue eyes has been tied nude to his bed, and formaldehyde has been injected into his penis, in effect burning his lower torso with what must have been agonizing pain. The forensic doctor concludes that the victim was gay and that it was probably a crime of passion.

The resulting investigation into the harrowing case takes Caldas into the city's hospitals and its gay bars. The results are a twisted trail that leads to a fast-paced and surprising conclusion in which it is revealed that the crime was actually another matter altogether.

Inspector Caldas is an engaging and fairly complex figure. He is a local celebrity for his role on a radio show, Patrol on the Air, to which citizens can call in complaints they have. He and his wife or lover (it is never clarified which) have separated. We never see her, nor learn of the exact nature of their rift, but he constantly judges himself by her standards. Without his really understanding why, he has troubles connecting with his father, a viniculturist whom we do meet.

Caldas appreciates good food and wine, and his visits to local bars and restaurants are part of the delights of the novel. He is fairly well read (Camus and Cela, among others, are mentioned). He knows music, and his call on the jazz club where the victim played offers the reader a glimpse into this part of Spanish life. Caldas is anything but narrow-minded. He trusts his instincts, and they serve him well. In short, our protagonist is quite likeable, often charming.

His subordinate is anything but. Recently reassigned from Zaragoza, Rafael Estévan arrives with rumors floating in his wake. Within a very few months he has amassed fourteen complaints against him. Volatile, easily provoked to temper, he constantly flares up at the Galician habit of answering a question with another question. He provokes constant grief for Caldas during the course of their investigation. Estévan's encounter with a dog, however, provides the significant breakthrough in solving what has now become murders in the plural.

In a typical example of the kind of comic relief Estévan provides, the two officers pursue a lead into a gay bar that the victim sometimes frequented. Earlier in the day Estévan impulsively goes wading in the Atlantic and is attacked by a weaverfish. Now, oblivious to the image he projects, he proceeds to remove his shoe and sock and prop the injured foot on a low table. One of the bar's patrons offers to massage it.

The resulting lawsuit alleges, more or less correctly, that Estévan "sat in provocative poses, and kicked the first guy who went near him. Apparently, he kicked him so bad that he hurt his foot, because soon enough he had taken off his shoe and was bashing him in the face with its heel. [...] meanwhile, he threatened people with his gun, so no one dared approach as he finished the job." The police superintendent sums up, "He's a complete lunatic."

OJOS DE AGUA was originally published in 2006 and first translated into English in 2008. I cannot judge the quality of the translation as such, but the results read very fluidly. The novel, the author's first, won several prizes and, indeed, shows all the accomplishment of a mature writer who is already a master of the genre.

A native Galician, the 39-year-old author lives in Madrid, where he also writes television scripts and food columns. A translation of the second novel in the series, DEATH ON A GALICIAN SHORE (LA PLAYA DE LOS AHOGADOS, 2009), will be published spring 2011.

§ Drewey Wayne Gunn, Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, is author of THE GAY MALE SLEUTH IN PRINT AND FILM (2005) and editor of THE GOLDEN AGE OF GAY FICTION (2009), a collection of essays, including his own "Down These Queer Streets a Man Must Go," and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and a Benjamin Franklin Award.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, December 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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