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Mostly Fiction: "Though [the mystery here] is clever, it takes second place to the characters and how they became the people they are, both as victims and as aggressors."

Date: Jul 1 2008

from Mostly Fiction

“She mixes with thugs and whores as if it was nothing.  What to tell you about the way she tackles rapists and brutes during questioning?...From my point of view, she sometimes overdoes it.  The other day she stripped a poor pickpocket naked, stark bollock naked?  Left him there for over an hour…the guy almost died.  He cracked, he finally cracked...It takes a strong stomach to watch her work.”—Fermin Garzon, about  Petra Delicado.

Though this is the third novel which Europa Editions has released in the Petra Delicado series (following Dog Days and Prime Time Suspect), it is the first in the series, chronologically.  Introducing us to Inspector Petra Delicado and her sergeant, Fermin Garzon, a detective combo which somehow “fits” perfectly despite their obvious differences, the novel explores their contrary life-styles, individual quirks, backgrounds, and age disparity.   Petra, the “sophisticated…conspicuous, intelligent, and devoted” law partner of her husband Hugo, abandoned their elegant law office—and the arrogant Hugo—to become a police officer, an inexplicable “step down,” in his opinion.  

Now in her thirties, she has remarried a charming, younger man named Pepe—and divorced him, too.   Pepe, however, is still dependent upon her and hangs around her new house wanting to be helpful, even dropping by on one occasion to leave a photograph of their cat on her sofa.  For her, “Contact with ex-husbands [was] a strange business.  Marriage was a fatty substance which always left stains on the skin, however much you scrubbed it with soap.”

This is Petra’s first real case.  Until now she has worked in the department of documentation, away from real crimes, but she tackles this investigation with all her considerable energy.  Feminist that she is, she is determined to prove that she is as tough as any of the men in the department.  Telling her own first-person story, she admits that “I was chuffed by my own military style…You had to whirl the whip overhead when someone thought to come and wish you good day.”

Fermin, also divorced, is estranged from his son, a doctor who lives in New York, but unlike Petra, he is softer and more sentimental--a laid-back and ferociously hard-working retiree from the Salamanca force, anxious to do his job in Barcelona.  Always aware that she is the inspector and he is the sergeant, he keeps his mouth closed when she becomes aggressive but stays around to pick up the pieces for her when that becomes necessary. Paunchy and in his fifties, Fermin lives in a dreary boarding house room but spends much of his time after work eating, drinking and talking at The Ephemerides, a bar owned by Pepe, Petra’s ex-husband.

In this novel, three young women have been raped, and they have all been branded on their forearms with a flower-shaped mark made by barbs.  None of the victims can or will provide any information, and Petra and Fermin must rely on tedious searches through databanks and plenty of legwork to come up with suspects.  What was the instrument used to brand the victims?  Who might have made it?  Who might have ordered it?  What, if any connections, exist between victims and rapist?  And ultimately, who would have murdered one of the victims, weeks after the crime?  Along the way, they must deal with the police hierarchy, which wants results, and with aggressive reporters who believe, and publicly state, that Petra and Fermin are unqualified for the job.

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, the author of this series and winner of the Feminino Lumen Prize as best female writer in Spain, is at least as interested (if not more interested) in character here as in dramatic action.  Concentrating on the intellectual contest between the rapist and the victims and eventually between a killer and victim, the author also shows Petra and Fermin as they engage in separate intellectual contests with the rapist and the murderer, with each other, with the police department, and with the press.  Gradually the lives and thoughts of the victims, suspects, and investigators are revealed.  Little action takes place on stage, except for a punch that Petra takes in the mouth, and the rapes and the murder of one of the first victims are  “reported” rather than presented “live.”  Blood, gore, and sensational action play little role in this novel.

For those who have read Prime Time Suspect, the third novel in this series (chronologically), Death Rites may seem simple and straightforward.  Giving the early background of Petra and Fermin and how they came to work together, it sets up the dynamics of their later partnership, which continues to develop as the series progresses.  The mystery itself is not very sophisticated or important here.  Though it is clever, it takes second place to the characters and how they became the people they are, both as victims and as aggressors.  Ultimately, “Everyone’s alone,” Petra says, “but that’s the way it is. If you’re alive, you have to keep on going…The important thing is inner peace, and that’s something no one knows how to achieve.”

by Mary Whipple