and the New Generation of Detective Fiction in
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Knight has shown how a new pattern of crime fiction that “ratifies new
attitudes to crime-control” emerged after the Second World War. As
notes, the detective in British and American fiction became a
“acting with institutional support, conducting more or less accurately
reported police business” (168). In
Hard-boiled detective fiction in the twentieth century both emulates High Art Literature and challenges the hierarchies produced by categories through intertextuality. The blurring of the distinction between Popular and High Art in the work of such novelists as Robert B. Parker enables hard-boiled fiction to be regarded as a new hybrid and self-consciously intertextual form. (2)
In terms of
characterization, a number of references and allusions in the
evoke characters from classic American novels and films in the
tradition. Indeed several of the
stock character types that populate the novels were created by writers
Siempre he creído que un policía puede y en parte debe sentirse seducido por una criminal, si en el último momento se las arregla para insultarla como Sam Spade a Brigid O’Shaughnessy al final de El halcón maltés, a ser posible con la misma cara que Humphrey Bogart. Pero sentirse seducido por una compañera, dejando aparte otras infracciones, constituye una dispersión mental incalculablemente perniciosa. El torero sólo debe pensar en el toro, . . . (El lejano país, 67)
Bevilacqua plays out some of the principal thematics of the hard-boiled
detective but he is not the same sort of antihero.(3)
Rather, in some
respects, he is more like Chandler’s ex-cop Marlowe who Willet calls “a sensitive, decent man operating in a world
that is violent and corrupt” albeit not a stlyized character like
(13). Bevilacqua, like Marlowe, is
sometimes nearly seduced by the criminals or suspects. When he meets
spectacular widow of the victim in El
alquimista impaciente whose deep voice reminds him of Lauren
Bacall in The Big Sleep for example, he is momentarily
speechless yet manages to resist the temptations of the femme fatale. On the other hand, his
comparison of his
ex-wife to Barbara Stanwyck in La niebla
reveals that he is not always successful in steering clear of the femme fatale. In still another instance
Chamorro’s appearance is compared to
It was a strange
because it was also very complimentary about the book . . . I assume
some sort of prejudice against crime stories although I realise that
win a prize, many people want to criticise both it and the winner. But
feeling is nothing new. In the 1930’s in
In addition to the foregoing allusions to popular novels and films, the Bevilacqua novels also include references to and citations from works not associated with popular culture. Some of these, including War and Peace function principally to indicate the atypical background and intellect of the detective and, as Willet’s would argue, to deflate the conventional anti-literary stance that conflates culture and decadence in crime fiction while other allusions that I should like to examine in more detail represent thematic parallels with the cases that Bevilacqua investigates (14).
The first of these
allusions are found in the titles of the novels. The most transparent
is La niebla y la doncella, the third
book in the series, which clearly recalls Shubert’s Death
and Maiden in both title and theme. El lejano
país de los estanques is more obscure, however, in
its allusion to a passage from Virginia Wolf’s The Waves (1931). The Waves
traces the lives of six people
through a series of six interior monologues that reflect on themselves
others. These monologues are interspersed with descriptive prose about
waves and tides of the sea as representative of the ebb and flow of
seventh character in the novel, the central yet absent Percival,
Virginia Woolf's brother Thoby, who died in 1906. Identity, then, is
theme as each of the characters assess themselves in relation to the
revealing vulnerability and insecurity not perceived by the others.
Eva Heydrich, the victim in El lejano
país de los estanques, is characterized
as an extraordinarily beautiful and manipulative woman whose abuse of
admirers identifies her initially as the femme
fatale. Despite never having met her, the detective eventually
evident sympathy for her. Like Woolf’s Percival whose monologue is
from the text because he is already dead, the Eva character is thus
entirely from other’s perceptions of her and the detective’s quest
is as much about knowing the victim as identifying the criminal.(4) The
title of the fourth book in the series; La
reina sin espejo, calls to mind
Lewis Carrol’s Alice Through the
Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The connection here
appears to be
between the victim of Silva’s novel and the distortion and reversal of
Each of the titles, then, refers to the inevitable fate of the victim and alludes to the melancholic reality that disorder can only be controlled temporarily.
Another and perhaps
the most significant of the literary allusions in the Silva series is
of the novels is prefaced with a passage from the Lapidario
of Alfonso X a book of gemological and astrological lore
that describes the mystical powers of stones and minerals. Stones or
are described for each of the thirty degrees in each sign of the zodiac
(although there are numerous lacunae) and each description is followed
brief description of the star(s) that has power over the stone. These
as I will show, always allude to the victims and together with the
Each of the complete citations from the Lapidary speaks of the results of combining certain elements. The citation that precedes El lejano país de los estanques, which is part of the chapter on diamonds from the Lapidario, describes their physical properties:
This stone will break all others, piercing or cutting them, without any of them leaving a mark on it. The diamond will do yet another thing: if it is rubbed together with other stones, it will pulverize all of them. But there is a kind of lead, which in Arabic is called azrob and in Latin stannu, which will break this stone in the following manner: when the lead is wrapped around the stone and hit with a hammer, the stone will break right away, and when the lead is then fashioned into a mortar and pestle, the stone, once it has been broken, can be ground into a powder. (Bahler and Gyékényesi Gatto, 46)
We recall that the victim, Eva Heydrich, was of such extraordinary beauty that she easily dominated all others in life but that, ultimately, she was destroyed.
citation prefacing El alquimista
impaciente comes from the chapter discussing gold and is the only
in the Lapidario where alchemy is treated
in some detail (Bahler and Gyékényesi Gatto, 12). In it,
author warns the ignorant against mixing gold with lesser metals:
The nature of the stone of this metal is such that, when mixed with copper, it becomes like glass and breaks, but it fuses with it. Also, when mixed with tin, it turns black, and when mixed with silver, it takes on its whiteness, and so on, taking the color of every metal with which it fuses. For this reason, those who work in alchemy, which is called “major works,” have to bear in mind that they must not hurt the name of that science, since alchemy means mastery to make things better, not worse. Hence, those who take noble metals and mix them with common ones, understanding neither the science nor the mastery, cause damage to those which are noble and do not better those which are common. (Bahler and Géykényesi Gatto, 68)
The fact that the victim works at a nuclear power plant may be only a happenstance but, if so, it a propitious one. Nuclear power is produced through the process of fission which involves the transmutation (splitting) of atoms to produce atoms of different elements and energy.(6) This transmutation can be said to parallel that of the victim. Alchemy, to which the title and the preceding citation from the Lapidario refer, is not limited to the attempt to transmute base metals into precious metals but is a multifaceted subject that includes also the attempts to create an elixir to cure all ills as well as an one which would lead to immortality. The magical substance that would enable these transmutations was called the philosopher’s stone. The impatient alchemist to whom the title refers is, of course, the victim who becomes a criminal. In this case, money is both the magical substance that creates the “other” and it is the dangerous one that ultimately destroys him. The procurement of sufficient quantities of it for a constantly inflating lifestyle results in his change from the harmless man known to his wife and co-workers to the other man whose greed allows him to undertake the slow murder of a competitor. The means of death by radioactive poisoning parallels his own degeneration.
The citation that
precedes La niebla y la doncella
refers to the first stone treated in the Lapidario.
The stone is called magnetes in Latin
and the section that Silva cites speaks of its magnetic properties:
This stone has in it the natural virtue to attract iron with very great force, so that it looks like a great marvel to those who do not know the nature of things. They should not marvel that this stone, which is hot and dry, can attract iron, which is cold and dry, because if they kept in mind what learned men have said, they would find that all things that attract one another do it in two ways: either because they are alike or because they are opposites. (Bahler and Géykényesi Gatto, 23)
The allusion here
is to the murderous police officer and eventual victim, Anglada, the
perpetual threshold position both attracts
Finally, the citation that precedes La reina sin espejo comes from the section referring to the stone called azarnech in the Lapidario. In Latin, this stone is called orpiment which due to the arsenic it contains is a deadly poison. Silva borrows the section from The Lapidario stating: “This stone is found is in many places and in many mines . . . By nature it is hot and dry in the fourth degree and it contains great heat.” The Lapidario goes on to explain that when the stone is burned and mixed with copper and borax “the stone will make the copper turn the color of gold, . . . However, it will not be natural gold. . . . This is so because burning it turns it into a finer substance” (Bahler and Géykényesi Gatto, 172). The reference to the victim then, as in each of the previous citations, alludes to the incongruity between initial favorable appearances and underlying destructive realities.
As is often the
case in hard-boiled fiction, this disparity between appearance and
echoed in the settings of each of the novels. The first three novels in
series take place in hot and steamy tropical locales; El lejano
de los estanques on the
La humedad lo impregnaba todo. Creí ver hayas, sabinas, laureles. . . . Los árboles se entrelazaban unos con otros, formando una masa densa, entre la que casi parecía imposible pasar. . . . Anglada conducía impasible, o quizá disfrutando de nuestro asombro. Siempre produce un irreprimible placer asistir al deslumbramiento de otro ante algo que uno conoce de antes. Su mirada estaba fija en la carretera y en la niebla que la difuminaba ante sus ojos. Resulta ingrato, manejar un coche contra la niebla, pero a ella no parecía producirle aspaviento alguno. (142-3)
Just as the
citations that precede the Bevilacqua novels clearly reference the
too do Bevilacqua’s concluding thoughts. Each of the endings involves
sympathizing and moralizing.(8) It is in this respect
that Bevilacqua departs
significantly from his hard-boiled predecessors and, to some degree
dangerously close to the detective-as-redeemer never achieved by
ridiculed by many.(9)
While Philip Marlowe
tends to “bow out with
either a wry joke at his own expense (The
High Window) or an expression of futility (The Big Sleep),”
which makes “toughness look like the
best way to fight the void,” Bevilacqua reflects upon the fate of the
victims at the end of each of the novels (Wolfe, 63). In effect, he is
contemplating the possibility of redemption:
Después de todo . . . tuve la debilidad de experimentar una póstuma compasión por Eva Heydrich. Sin condescendencia, con más afecto que piedad. Nadie es tan malvado que ninguna persona deba quererle. Viendo cómo todos desertaban, me entró una ansia conmovidad de hacerle compañía. (El lejano país, 285)
Just short of maudlin, Bevilacqua gets hold of himself: “Tarde o temprano se secan las lágrimas, se da media vuelta y se piensa en lo que habrá que hacer de cena” (285). Nevertheless, he cannot resist a similar lament after the second case:
Desde entonces, he pensado con cierta frecuencia en Trinidad Soler. . . . Creo que Trinidad fue consciente de la muerte que había detrás de ese azul, . . . Como todos sabemos de la negrura infinita que se oculta tras el cielo de una mañana de verano.
. . .
Esto es lo que querría comprender: por qué lo aceptó. Nunca he pretendido juzgarle, porque no es mi trabajo, porque ningun castigo puede añadirse al que recibió y porque una vez le hice una promesa que me toca honrar. Tan sólo me gustaría ser capaz de entender por qué un hombre como él quiso pasar la raya. (El alquimista, 281)
suggestion recurs in the La niebla y la
doncella when Vila exonerates both himself for failing to maintain
indifference and professional distance and the criminal turned victim
attributing the events to destiny: “cuando yo llegué la historia
ya estaba escrita y no admitía enmienda ni redención. Nadie podía impedir una
vez que ellas lo habían decidido, aquel misterioso y
abrazo entre la niebla y la doncella” (355).
In a final example, Bevilacqua is
reminded of Neus, the victim to whom the title La reina
sin espejo refers at the end of the novel, when another
young guard sings the legionaire song “El novio de la muerte.” The
verses “Y al regar con sangre la tierra ardiente, murmuró el
legionario con voz doliente” function to contrast the soldier’s
sense of purpose with Neus’ downfall (379). In the end, however, the
detective absolves Neus of her quite literally fatal flaw:
Pero me conmovió sentir cómo palpitaba la fe, una fe que yo no podría nunca profesar, en el canto de aquella muchacha arrebatada por el vino. Al final, descurrí entonces, lo único sabio es creerse algo y entregarle el corazón. Ni siguiera importa que tenga mucho sentido, porque nadie sabe para qué estamos aquí. Eso fue lo que Neus perdió, y con ello se le vino abajo el sueño y acabó siendo menos que el peón que había sido, como todos en la casilla de salida. Así fue como conoció, y no pudo resistir, la soledad inmensa y definitiva de la reina sin espejo. (378)
In each case, the narrative is thus framed by a preface forewarning of imminent peril and a concluding epitaph expressing a predetermined fate that cannot be altered nor wholly understood. While melancholic in tone, at the same time these endings underline a final sense of solidarity and sympathy absent in much of the hard-boiled tradition.
the Bevilacqua series Silva renegotiates
the tenets of the hard-boiled tradition in
(1). The relative
scarcity of the
police novel in Spain also correlates directly to the long standing
perception of the paramilitary police system as the corrupt enforcer of
rule under Franco which was reflected in the negative portrayal of the
typical to the detective novels of the post-transition years. In this
the police procedural in
(2). The famous passage on blondes from The Long Goodbye, alludes to this ideal: “There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are blonde as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very very tired when you take her
(3). Ralph Willet calls Spade a “near-psychopath” and notes: “Spade is a mirror image and sets down the themes of his earlier work: the ubiquity of crime, duplicity and corruption, the manipulative but necessary operation of role-playing - and the impossibility in a complex, predatory environment of imposing order through the solution of crimes. Spade's actions derive from a philosophy of the universe as a random series of unrelated contingent events, and some of the features of Spade's behaviour - impersonality, the concealment of thoughts and information, the need to maintain detachment and control (as in the famous Hemingwayesque account of rolling a cigarette) - are brought into play as he attempts to cope with his situation and his knowledge. While those attempts command respect, they fail to render the character more sympathetic. His long speech offering reasons for turning in the murderer Brigid O'Shaughnessy has been read as constituting a code of honour, morality and professionalism. Morally however Spade is only slightly ahead of his partner Miles Archer and the crooks against whom he pits himself. . . Like the Op Sam Spade has found a job that suits a temperament which in certain circumstances would allow him to function as a criminal” (9-10).
(4). Silva has expressed his affinity for Woolf on his website: “Esta escritora es para mí una especie de amor de juventud. Un amor que incluso llegó a los celos, por cuya influencia le suprimí durante un tiempo su apellido de casada y preferí referirme a ella con su nombre de soltera, Virginia Stephen. Este amor se alimentaba al principio de alguno de los retratos de juventud que de ella se conservan, en los que resplandece su belleza lacia y distinguida, reflejo pálido de la belleza rotunda de su audaz hermana Vanessa (de quien se dice que gustaba de bailar desnuda de cintura para arriba en las fiestas del grupo de Bloomsbury). Pero lo que de verdad me hizo querer a Virginia fue la lectura de un libro magistral que lleva por título Las olas” (“Zona desdinerizada: Virginia Woolf”). It may be that this affinity influenced also his choice of the name Virginia Chamorro.
(5). In a personal email,
(6). While the analogy between fission and alchemy here came to mind while reading El alquimista impaciente, it may constitute what William Irwin would call an “accidental association” (296). A passage from Rutherford – A Brief Biography by John Campbell which I later read, however, does support it: “He [Ernest Rutherford] explained the perplexing problem of radioactivity as the spontaneous disintegration of atoms . . ., he determined the structure of the atom and he was the world’s first successful alchemist (he converted nitrogen into oxygen). Or, put another way, he was first to split the atom” (1).
Willet notes that
in The Big Sleep and elsewhere,
(8). In a
personal email, Silva has responded to my thoughts on
Ingrid and Katherine Gyékényesi Gatto, eds.
Lapidary of King Alfonso X The Learned.
Raymond. The Long Good-Bye.
---. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Ballentine, 1972.
Renée W, “Shades of Green:
The Police Procedural in
en directo con
“Gana Lorenzo Silva el premio Nadal de Novela.” Infosel. 2002.. <http://www.terra.com.mx/entretenimiento/nota/20000106/089736.htm> (27 Mar. 2002).
Irwin, William, “What is an Allusion.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59.3 Summer 2001: 287-297.
Alex. “Crime Doesn’t Pay (enough).” The
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Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction.
Macdonald, Ross, “The Writer as Detective Hero,” On Crime Writing. Santa Barbara: Capra, 1973.
Pozuelo Yvancos, José María. Lorenzo Silva, The English Page. 2000.
Silva, Lorenzo. El alquimista impaciente. Barcelona: Destino, 2001.
---. El lejano país de los estanques. Barcelona: Destino, 1998.
---. Nadie vale más que otro: Cuatro asuntos de Bevilacqua. Barcelona, Destino, 2004.
---. La niebla y la doncella. Barcelona, Destino, 2002.
---. La reina sin espejo. Barcelona, Destino, 2005.
---. Una página personal
dedicada a los lectores. 2000. <
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(22 mar. 2006).
Peter. Something More Than
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