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Mostly Fiction: "The mystery is clever and beautifully plotted, but it is in the characters that this novel really excels."

Date: Jul 26 2007

"There's one thing I've never learnt to do.  I've never learnt how to put laces in a pair of new shoes…I always used to have someone to do it for me: my father, my husbands.  I never wanted to learn; it must have been something to do with allowing myself to be loved, to let others fuss over me a bit…Even now, I try to find someone who will do it for me…I still refuse to learn.  I think it's something life owes me." (from Prime Time Suspect)

Barcelona police inspector Petra Delicado's confession about shoelaces epitomizes the many paradoxes in her life.  A fiercely independent career woman, she refuses to tolerate any of the clichés or stereotypes about women and their behavior, even taking umbrage at the description of an evil man as a "son-of-a-bitch," since that term is insulting to mothers.  Acutely sensitive about the oles many men expect her to play, especially in the police department, she is tough and dedicated to her job, often working round the clock, and she resents even a hint of special treatment suggesting that she may be weaker than her male peers.  She regards her refusal to learn to put laces into new shoes as a conscious, independent decision—proof that she controls her own messy life—though others might regard it as an unconscious wish for a personal relationship, even on a small scale.

Married and divorced twice, Petra, now in her mid-forties, fantasizes about taking time off to go to a convent for non-believers, where bruised, exhausted people, like herself, can relax and find solitude.  But she realizes that that fantasy is not workable.  "What about sex and love?" she wonders, concluding that such a convent would become a brothel within three days.  Moody, sarcastic, sometimes melancholy, and often on the verge of a self-described crisis, Petra wants to be alone.  

Acting as foil to the ferociously self-sufficient Petra, is her partner, Sgt. Fermin Garzon, a man in his fifties who has a softer, more sentimental side.  Fermin, also divorced, tries to protect Petra m herself so subtly, sometimes, that she does not even realize it, and while the novel shows that each truly likes and respects the other, Fermin is Petra's employee, and he does not overstep his boundaries.  With "energy for two people and no psychological hang-ups," Fermin provides balance for the high-strung Petra.

The murder of Ernesto Valdes, a ruthless, even amoral, gossip reporter, takes Petra and Fermin from Barcelona to Madrid and back as they investigate whether Valdes was killed for revenge or to shut him up, and whether the killer was a hired gun or someone for whom this was a crime of passion.  Various members of the police force in Barcelona and Madrid check Valdes's financial records, along with those of his ex-wife, his interior decorator, and any possible partners he might have had in a blackmail scheme, since he managed to stashed a large amount of cash in a Swiss bank, its origins unknown.  With Maggy, Valdes's "Goth" assistant at the TV station, providing some help to Petra and Fermin, they work to track down leads.  

Before long, this case begins to overlap with another case being investigated by Inspector Moliner, the Barcelona Police Department's star investigator, in which the government Health Minister has been murdered.  Valdes has publicly revealed the minister's dalliances with a mistress and embarrassed him and his family, and the two murders might be related. Eventually, six deaths occur, with the investigation building inexorably to a grand climax as Petra and Fermin try to determine how many different killers and how many different motives there might have been in the overlapping cases.

The mystery is clever and beautifully plotted, but it is in the characters that this novel really excels.  Author Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, winner of the Femenino Lumen prize as best female writer in Spain, has created in Petra and Fermin characters who are so unusual and intriguing that the reader never tires of their interchanges.  Much more fully developed than the typical investigating team in police procedurals, they are revealed on the psychological level at the same time that the reader comes to know them through their actions, and even at the conclusion Petra remains unpredictable and somewhat elusive.  

The supporting characters are also exceptionally well drawn, with Maggy, Valdes's assistant, being particularly well developed.  Bitter and resentful of both Valdes and the police, she is a reluctant participant in the investigation, and her interchanges with Petra are fascinating for what they reveal about both of them.  Petra's sister, newly separated from her husband and staying at Petra's apartment in Barcelona, adds another level of interest as she conducts an affair with Insp. Moliner and calls into question Petra's own attitudes toward love.  The second in the Petra Delicado series (after Dog Day, Europa 2006),  Prime Time Suspect is a well-translated, first-class mystery with two main characters who provide endless opportunities for further growth and development.  Filled with astute observations about people and society, this novel goes beyond "mere" entertainment, creating a realistic picture of the culture and its social conflicts.

by Mary Whipple

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