Hard-boiled noir often revolves around death, or multiple deaths and in Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows (La mala dona, 2008; tr. from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, 2014) that remains the case, but Death, that fateful visitor, takes a step back from his day job to narrate a crime novel. Death follows Moisès Corvo, a detective in 1911 Barcelona, as he investigates the disappearances of children. The tone takes on an extra touch of sinister fun when Death offers the perspective, so that “He’s got real balls on him, that copper” isn’t an anonymous narrator telling us this, but the soul-taker himself taking a moment to admire a mortal. It’s a viewpoint that Pastor uses well and doesn’t overplay. It would be fitting and welcome for Pastor to use Death in a crime series the way that many authors use the same detective repeatedly. In the second translation of Mara Faye Lethem’s that I’ve read this year, she shows that she can bring two different author’s voices into English clearly, distinctly, without tics that show her influence.
From the beginning, Moisès is a familiar detective: he’s visiting a prostitute, bitter, doesn’t believe there is good in the world, but fights against the worst of it nonetheless. When the prostitute tells him that children are disappearing in the city, he doesn’t immediately believe her, mainly because he didn’t know the child existed in the first place. This attitude appears again and again in Barcelona: these are invisible children, so how could they disappear? But Corvo is the stubborn hero, fighting on to fight on, without faith that there can be victory. This suits the reader, because Pastor and Death don’t hide the monster at the dark center of the book from us. In the earliest pages, we know who she is, know who surrounds her, and know the suffering of the children they are capturing. In that first scene meeting the monster and her companions, everything is bathed in violence, even sex: “The woman bites his ear and then runs her tongue along the nape of his neck, while her hand slithers down his pubic bone until it catches its prey.”
The “her” there is Enriqueta Martí, a real-life serial killer in Barcelona. While Corvo’s pursuit of her is fictionalized, her biography and her horrors are not, her kidnappings, her involvement in the sex trade (both adults and children), her use of the bones, hair, and blood in witch-doctor remedies are not. Martí’s Wikipedia page is as haunting as Barcelona Shadows. Though Martí is the devil at the center, the book becomes a catalog of the crimes of man, as Death tells us in the opening: “Men only know how to annihilate, negate, in all possible senses: to dominate and kill.”
Throughout, there is casual cruelty and purposeful violence. Corvo watches it all while hardly blinking, as when he visits a man who may know something about the crimes and is able to talk to him like he speaks to anyone else in the book, this a man who assaulted children in the neighborhood, raped his own daughter. Corvo despises him, but he expects to despise any man. In this grim Barcelona, only the fools and the cruel find happiness, and sometimes Pastor’s characters are both.
There are times that it seems we’re supposed to be surprised at the horrors, that the world could truly be this evil, and there Barcelona Shadows feels duller, familiar. Readers of genre, readers of the news, know to what sick depths violence runs and there is little room for shock. Corvo is nothing new, so when Pastor writes that “He’s no longer a defender of the good folk, because he no longer believes in good folk,” it’s little more than reminder of the known archetype. Too many reminders, and they become frustrating.
The nadir of the visitation of tropes comes when Corvo meets the man, Andre Gireau, who runs a casino at the center of the child sex trade. The conversation turns to the usual evil man who does not believe in his evil and justifies his actions, while trying to convince the hero that he has no ground to judge from “Don’t lecture me, Mr. Lestrade. You are a policeman, and the police are the last people who should lecture on ethics and morality. When you beat somebody up to get a confession out of them, is that ethical?” Does he have a vague point? Sure. But is it something a reader of noir has read again and again and passes over in boredom? Most likely.
Barcelona Shadows success in breaking from tropes and Pastor’s creation of something new for noir comes in that dark narrator, Death. When Pastor writes his standard stake-out scene, dwelling on the boredom that nearly overwhelms the detective, Death shifts the angle of perspective on the scene and we hear this trope anew: “I am Patience itself. I wait, I observe and I only act when intervention is necessary, with surgical precision. I am not innocent, I don’t need to tell you that. But neither am I guilty. I’m just another person and at the same time I’m everything, because in the end, everything reverts to me.” In a book of violence and death, spectacular insight from Death is utterly fitting.
This Death is not utterly passive either, not a narrator detached, high above the story. Death is not even on the side of death, but must be there when it’s time. He can become a physical presence in the story, interacting with people, and shows a personality beyond observation. Death bonds us to Corvo, making him just special enough, “when we look into each other’s eyes I know he understands me.” Death wants to be understood, wants to not be blamed for the murders of Enriqueta. Death takes pleasure in being recognized, even if he is immediately forgotten. He becomes attached to those who are able to know him. These moments of depth bring him beyond a narrative trick to a true character.
When Corvo needs to stay at Gireau’s corrupt casino without arising suspicion, Death works the roulette wheel Corvo chooses, and influences the drop of the ball so Corvo can win and keep playing. Death believes in Corvo, so we believe in Corvo. There may be no happy ending to Barcelona Shadows—Death makes that clear in the beginning—but there won’t be utter defeat either. Corvo is Death’s hero because he is a man of will “And will is the part of your souls that I most envy.”
The borders of reality are thinned by the supernatural narrator. When Corvo “feels a stab in his left arm, at the height of the bullet wound” it is a sign that Enriqueta is near, and in a world where Death is an actual being, it is utterly literal, and believable. But with those thin borders, Barcelona is living city, and Pastor ensures it is a character itself. Barcelona of 1911, with its flaws, the figure of science in the book an insane man who believes in vampires, forensics just burgeoning, “Barcelona is as quick to love as it is to forget, as quick to hate as it is to fall asleep, and what’s today an insurmountable fear will tomorrow crumble like a lump of damp sugar amid the newspaper pages.” Barcelona Shadows is less the story of a detective, and more of a time, a city, and Death, and it’s a better noir for all that.