The Barcelona of 1911 is a dark, dangerous and gothic place. Its streets are filled with filth, sickness, poverty and crime. One of the men fighting crime is Inspector Moises Corvo whose latest case is to try and hunt down a monster that is abducting and killing children, draining them of their blood. The problems he face are the fact that this killer somehow evades him at every turn and also that with the children being those of the prostitutes and the penniless of the lower classes, most of his seniors either refuse to see it as being a problem or believe that it is actually happening at all. Yet Corvo is determined to catch the killer, even if it leads him to the depths of Barcelona’s underbelly and to the depths of what humans can do.
There were a few things I instantly found captivating about this book, and instantly stood out to me. First was the narration, which I won’t give away because when you realise who it is you do a really ‘oh, oh really’ and it hooks you in a little more. I can give away the fact, and the second thing I really liked about it, that the book is based on the true series of crimes caused by the real-life Enriqueta Marti who indeed killed children or abducted them for paedophiles and became one of Spain’s most famous killers ‘the Vampire of Barcelona’. This isn’t a spoiler as we the reader know this from the start while Corvo doesn’t, yet we follow them both in time, even passing each other in the street which was the third element I really liked instantly from this book.
Before we go much further on let me vent some of my issues with the book, though there were only a couple, before I look at the positives. One aspect was, and I feel dreadful saying this, the translation which I think gave the book a strange distance and slightly clunky feeling, I also felt (which I haven’t noticed in other translated books often) as if I knew I wasn’t reading this in its original language, that I was missing something be it a connotation or just a little bit of its soul. The other aspect was that every so often the book, rather like its main character Moises, seemed a little over confident in itself. On occasion it seemed to feel it was as worthy of, if not better than, one of the original Victorian crime stories. Now this might have been the style and been designed to make the modern reader see the author was aware of the homage, for me it was a little annoying on occasion.
“Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, is even worse than Holmes. Holmes at least, is seen through Watson and Watson’s got a constantly crafty streak, even though Holmes is a bully and treats him like shit. Ma’am, out of the way, goddamnit, do you know how late it is?” he scolds. “Dupin is a some sort of crime-solving machine who’s never set foot on the street. I’d like to see him out in the real world, off the page, where all the murderers aren’t stupid monkeys.”
“There must be one that you like…”
“Lestrade. I like Lestrade. A Scotland Yard detective who does his job even though Holmes insists on humiliating him.”
“Moises, you read too much.”
It isn’t the normal way I would start a review but I wanted to get that out of the way because it has somewhat clouded my overall memory of the book and is the initial remaining feeling I had. Yet when I think about it more all of the brilliant part of the books slowly come for the for and remind me that when Pastor is on form he does have some right to potentially be a little cocky, though he might not be his character might have rubbed me up the wrong way a little too much slagging off my hero Sherlock Holmes. Who can say?
Pastor is very good at both restraint and knowing when there is just enough of a certain tension or mood within his story without it getting a little too much. For example within Barcelona Shadows there are some pretty vile characters and walks of life and they do some pretty horrible things. However even though we know these people are wicked and evil, there are moments when even when we think something awful is coming it spring at you suddenly, speedily and then is gone making it both more shocking and also giving you a real ‘did I actually read that’ moment without the reader ever feeling a voyeur or complicit, just stunned. He also knows just when to give the book a swift injection of dark humour which lightens the moments a few pages before. I liked this sense of a little light within the shade, or vice versa, very much.
Luckily for the detective, the smell of rotting corpse is so strong it drowns out the scent of shady intentions and sex for money, and Conxita is left to think that her husband has only been seeing cadavers and criminals. Conxita is a bit thick, but she doesn’t know it, so she’s happy.
I also liked the brooding atmosphere of the book throughout. Along with the narration, which I am still not giving away, the book really envelops you in the dark streets and underbelly of a city at that time. Indeed Barcelona is in some ways a character all of itself, and one which Pastor seems to have a wonderful fondness for and often describes quite poetically.
Barcelona is an old lady with a battered soul, who has been left by a thousand lovers but refuses to admit it. Every time she grows, she looks in the mirror, sees herself changed and renews all her blood until it’s almost at boiling point. Like a butterfly’s cocoon, she finally bursts. Distrust becomes the first phase of gestation: no one is sure that he whom they’ve lived with for years, whom they’ve considered a neighbour, isn’t now an enemy.
It seemed a fait accompli that I would love Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows; I love a gothic novel, I love a crime novel, I love Barcelona and I find fictional accounts of unusual or lesser known factual happenings really interesting. As it was I really enjoyed it and found it gripping at the beginning and thrilling as it whirls towards its dramatic and actually incredibly gut wrenching and emotional ending. Yet I was let down somewhere in the middle through both a slight lack of connection with the text and the main character as I mentioned earlier. I was actually briefly tempted to get a ‘learn Spanish’ set of mp3s (I have always wanted to learn Spanish anyway) so I could read the book in its original, that is how sure I was I should love it. I would still be very interested to read some of Marc Pastor’s other novels as when he blends the horror, gothic and atmosphere just right it gives you the proper shivers and shocks.
Has anyone else read Barcelona Shadows and if so what did you make of it? I might be asking something bonkers but if anyone out there has read it in the original Spanish and the English translation I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you any recommendations for any other unusual and quirky thrillers out there?