Eduardo Mendoza’s La aventura del tocador de señoras:

ex-centric eccentricities and moral ambiguity in Barcelona society



Tiffany Gagliardi Trotman

University of Otago


Perhaps the postmodern motto should be “Hail to the Edges!

Linda Hutcheon


Towards the end of Franco’s dictatorship, several new phenomena appear in Spanish literary culture. The emergence of genres relatively new to the peninsula, including science fiction and crime fiction, has invited criticism seeking to clarify the position of this literature within a contemporary cultural context. Critics have attempted to reconcile the changed environment that is post-Franco Spain with a contemporary transformation of artistic production. This criticism focuses on the political and economic change of the 1960s and the early democratic years, known as the Transition. 

Through a compare and contrast, “then” versus “now” technique, critics have analyzed the emergence of science fiction and detective fiction in Spain. However, the relative absence of these genres prior to the late 20th century does beg the question, “Why now?”  Howard Haycraft, in his book Murder for Pleasure writes: “The development of Spanish detective fiction ties in with the end of dictatorship because mysteries are the democratic genre par excellence, relying as they do on an impartial legal system and proof of guilt.” (xv) 

Previous investigation has analyzed Spanish crime fiction from an historical or at times Marxist perspective. In essence, to date, detective and crime fiction has been treated more as a historical novelty rather than as a unique expression of Spanish postmodern literature.

Since the mid-1970s, the novela negra, also known as the novela policíaca, or the Spanish detective novel has experienced phenomenal success and growth in Spain. Writers like Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Eduardo Mendoza have manipulated the investigative nature of detective fiction in order to observe and criticize Spanish society. In so doing, they have appropriated the genre, creating a Spanish school of detective fiction. 

The novela negra is an ironic subversion of the classic ‘whodunit’ novel incorporating a comic, marginalized, anti-hero as the sleuth seeking to find order in a postmodern society lacking both truth and justice. Ultimately, the Spanish detective is the victim of chance and change, rarely finding any resolution to the crimes committed in the novels. Unlike the classic detective novel, solving the crime by identifying the murderer and method of killing is never the primary theme of the novel, but merely a sub-theme of the narrative.

This paper seeks to situate Spanish novela negra or detective fiction within a poetics of postmodernism by acknowledging several characteristics of the genres’ form.  The analysis examines Eduardo Mendoza’s novel La aventura del tocador de señoras  (2001) in light of Linda Hutcheon’s conceptualization of the postmodern as developed in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction and demonstrates the existence of an environment of moral ambiguity within contemporary Barcelona society. Moral ambiguity, a feature of postmodern society, destroys clear distinctions between the periphery and the center.

La aventura del tocador de señoras is Eduardo Mendoza’s third novel in the Ceferino series.  In the first two novels, El misterio de la cripta embrujada (1978) and El laberinto de las aceitunas (1982), the reader meets the anonymous protagonist, often referred to as Ceferino. The first two novels relate tales of detection led by Ceferino, a patient in an asylum for the mentally ill, at the behest of the police. The supposed clarity of vision provided by the insane patient aids the authorities as they seek to resolve a mystery. In both novels, Ceferino enjoys a temporary relief from his internment while he solves the crime, however, once final conclusions are drawn, he is forced to return to the asylum.

In contrast to El misterio de la cripta embrujada and El laberinto de las aceitunas, La aventura del tocador de  señoras marks a clear break from an established pattern. As a result of the construction of a mega-mall complex on the current site of the asylum, Ceferino receives permanent release in the first chapter of this latest novel. The series takes a significant turn as Ceferino’s circular path: asylum, society, asylum is permanently disrupted. This rupture indicates a fundamental shift in the series. While the previous novels tend towards a social critique of the past, this newest novel, set in post-Olympic Barcelona, is present and forward looking in nature with a very local critique of Barcelona’s contemporary society.

In this third novel, Ceferino attempts to re-establish himself as a reliable, upright, hardworking citizen. When he is approached by the daughter of a wealthy businessman to aid in the self-inflicted robbery of corporate documents from El Caco Español, he makes every effort to avoid involvement. However, fearing that his shady past may be exposed should he not comply, he enters the corporate headquarters and removes a mysterious blue folder from the director’s office. Glancing through the newspaper the next morning, Ceferino discovers the director of the company, Manuel Pardalot, has been assassinated and found dead in his office. Faced with the possibility of being implicated in the murder, Ceferino, undertakes the role of suspect as detective, determined to solve the crime before arrested. As in the previous novels, Ceferino is thrust into survival mode to preserve his own integrity, something that is worth more to him now than ever before.  The protagonist must navigate through a maze of eccentric characters in order to unwind the mystery of who killed Pardalot, and the motives behind the murder.  Eduardo Mendoza’s novel takes us through a societal labyrinth in pursuit of justice in a contemporary society lacking clear distinctions between right and wrong.

Postmodern Preoccupations: The collapse of center


While La aventura del tocador de señoras demonstrates the characteristics of a crime novel, the work’s postmodern themes are its most salient and worthy feature. In true postmodern fashion, the novel develops multiple solutions to the plot and contains several different confessions to the crime, ultimately leaving the reader wondering if the mystery was ever truly solved. In addition, Mendoza abandons the use of deductive logic central to the 19th century detective novel, leaving the collection of evidence and leads to mere chance and coincidence. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the exploration of postmodern society and the position of individuals and their mobility within that society.

Mendoza questions and explores the saliency of our traditional conceptualization of societal order. His portrait of contemporary culture is unsettling and problematic. The novel questions the established principals of liberal humanism that have traditionally provided order in modern society. Through his novel, Mendoza affects a collapse of center, represented by the city of Barcelona and the traditional hierarchical structure of its core, ultimately undermining and destroying the notions of stability and morality. Linda Hutcheon, describes this effect in relation to the postmodern novel:

…the postmodernist novel puts into question that entire series of interconnected concepts that have come to be associated with what we conveniently label as liberal humanism: autonomy, transcendence, certainty, authority, unity, totalization, system, universalization, center, continuity, teleology, closure, hierarchy, homogeneity, uniqueness, origin.  (Hutcheon 1988, p. 57)


In Mendoza’s novel, a prevailing atmosphere of moral ambiguity throughout the narrative serves to undermine and subvert conventional order and hierarchy.  

While classic detective fiction depends on a clear distinction between moral versus immoral actions, postmodern detective novels like La aventura del tocador de señoras reject and actively subvert these notions creating an environment free of a determined order. While the traditional detective novel seeks to re-establish a broken order, the postmodern detective novel utilizes parody to expose the fissures in modern notions of stability. In his article, “Spain’s nueva novela negra and the Question of Form”, Michael Alan Compitello writes, “the postmodernist detective novel undermines the most fundamental assumption of the model: the ability to order the world” (183). If there are no longer accepted conventions of right and wrong, good and evil, morally upright citizens and societal delinquents, the center collapses. In Mendoza’s novel, characters move freely within a morally ambiguous environment, devoid of hierarchy and order.

If traditional society consists of a hierarchical system with power concentrated in the center among a select group of individuals and a majority existing as marginalized figures on the periphery of society, then what is the nature of postmodern Barcelona?  While decentering might imply unidirectional movement from the center outward, movement occurs in both directions in La aventura del tocador de las señoras. The result is a postmodernist society in which the center has collapsed due to character movement, within a morally ambiguous environment, from the center outwards and from the periphery inwards. A heterogeneous system of multiplicity replaces the original bi-polar structure of modern society:

The modernist concept of single and alienated otherness is challenged by the postmodern questioning of binaries that conceal hierarchies (self/other). Difference suggests multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than binary opposition and exclusion. (Hutcheon 1988, p. 61)


The collapse does not displace and supplant the margin with the center and vice versa. It “avoids the trap of reversing and valorizing the other, of making the margin into a center”. Instead, the new class “order”, for lack of a better term, is “plural and provisional” (Hutcheon 65).

In La aventura del tocador de señoras, movement between center and periphery occurs on several levels. On a microscopic level, character movement and the flux of social classes within the narrative constitutes one level of center-periphery movement. On a macroscopic level, however, one must acknowledge that the movement of the detective genre itself from the margins of literature inwards towards the center of critical discourse reveals movement relative to the text and the genre as a whole. Parody of the classic manifestation of the genre brings it to the center of literary criticism.

Movement whithin the genre

Periphery to Center

Several types of movement contribute to the devaluing of the center and its collapse in the novel. First, character movement within society exists in both directions. Those having lived on the margins of society, according to Linda Hutcheon’s terminology and adopted here, are referred to as members of “the ex-centric, off-center: ineluctably identified with the center it desires but is denied” (Hutcheon 60).  Perhaps the most evident movement of an ex-centric figure is seen through Ceferino’s identity transformation. All of the eccentric characters associated with the margins in the novel experience to a greater or lesser degree a shift towards the center. The transformation or mobility of the self, according to the postmodern theorist, Francois Lyotard is indicative of our time: “a self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before (Lyotard 1984a, p. 15). Ceferino’s movement lies above all in his gaining of lawful and stable employment as a hairdresser in his brother-in-law’s salon. Despite a total lack of experience in the trade, Ceferino obtains “el primer trabajo honrado de mi vida” (60). It is this position, secured with the help of his sister, Cándida that completely alters the protagonist’s engagement with society: “Huelga decir que puse en el empeño toda la energía acumulada en tantos años de ociosidad, toda la ilusión que me infundía la perspectiva de verme finalmente integrado en la sociedad de los hombres…” (30)

Through his new job Ceferino becomes, “conocido, respetado y muy apreciado en el barrio” (34). Overtime, he saves money, purchases new clothes and rents an apartment. Ceferino begins to dress in accordance to his new status and eventually, he proclaims, “me convertí en un señor de Barcelona” (32). Not only has Ceferino redefined himself as a law-abiding, sane member of society, he has become an upstanding citizen. The transformation and movement of this character includes his intellectual undertakings as well. Ceferino spends his Sunday mornings visiting two or three museums and signs up for several cultural courses via correspondence.

As a novela negra, a crime must arise in the novel, and eventually Ceferino must decide between returning to his criminal past or persevering towards a promising future. When trouble walks through the door, Ceferino is on the brink of receiving the “Creu de San Jordi” and determined to flee any scandal, he rejects the proposition to be involved with a seemingly minor crime despite a large monetary reward. He expresses his desire not to be involved with any potential illegalities:

Soy un hombre honrado, un ciudadano ejemplar, y ni siquiera argumentos tan convincentes como los que usted esgrime, muestra e insinúa lograrán apartarme del recto caminar. No cuente conmigo, salvo en lo que atañe a la discreción
. (46)


Whereas in previous novels, Ceferino lacks moral judgement, he now pledges himself to remain on the straight and narrow.

Ceferino’s sister, Cándida, also experiences considerable movement away from the periphery and towards the center. In the previous two novels, Cándida, a popular Barcelona prostitute, serves as a reliable and trustworthy accomplice to her brother. If Ceferino needs a place to hide, Cándida provides shelter in her dingy Barrio Chino dwelling. In addition, her familiarity with the marginal characters of Barcelona proves useful when Ceferino is in pursuit of a criminal. In contrast, the Cándida portrayed in La aventura del tocador de señoras, is a devoted wife to a local businessman. She spends her time caring for her mother-in-law and others in order to satisfy her “despertados instintos maternales” (222). Her new social status comes as a surprise to Ceferino who declares, “que al final la pobre Cándida se acabó casando. Nunca lo habría imaginado” (21). In her mothering way she helps her secure a job in the salon El tocador de señoras. Ceferino concludes, “no había en toda Barcelona persona más buena y acomodaticia que Cándida” (17).

In addition to character transformation, the spatial periphery undergoes an urban renewal.  Cándida notes Ceferino’s shock at the renaissance of the off-center neighborhood and the ex-centric individuals that once-typified the area: “El negocio familiar va viento en popa, gozamos de una posición  acomodada…Los tiempos han cambiado hombre.” (24)

Indeed, times changed and the marginal areas around Barcelona improved in part due to the pre-Olympic urban beautification projects. As a result, the ex-centric benefited through the valuing of the more culturally valuable and obscure sections of the city. Linda Hutcheon recognizes the postmodern interest in the local. She writes, “another form of this same move off-center is to be found in the contesting of centralization of culture through the valuing of the local and peripheral…” (Hutcheon 1988, p. 61). The modern notion of center is displaced through out the novel as formerly marginalized figures move toward the center and peripheral neighborhoods are revalued. Thus, the revaluing of the periphery affects a destruction of traditional order and hierarchy through increased fluidity and mobility characteristic of postmodern society.


Center to periphery movement


If the eccentric ex-centric’s experience a movement towards the center in the novel, a counterbalancing movement of the center towards the margins also exists. While the traditional order associates criminality with the marginalized subaltern, the proposition to commit a crime in this novel comes from a centric character, a wealthy Barcelona business owner. No longer is good equated with the center and evil with the periphery. Instead, the centric figures attempt to force the morally benevolent marginal figures into committing crimes. This manipulation of the periphery by the center is noted by Linda Hutcheon, “the relation of the center to the ex-centric is never an innocent one” (72).

When the supposed daughter of successful entrepreneur Manuel Pardalot, offers Ceferino a million pesetas in order to enter Pardalot’s office and steal a file, thereby feigning a theft of documents whose existence threatens the integrity of the business, Ceferino is trapped. By threatening to undermine his progress towards the center, the bourgeoisie characters force him to act in defense of his reputation. The conspirators reveal:

Hemos removido cielo y tierra hasta dar con usted, en quien concurren las características más idóneas para este tipo de trabajo por la fama de que goza en el barrio, por el modo ejemplar con que está labrándose un futuro al frente de su magnífica peluquería, y por supuesto, por las peculiaridades de
su pasado…(52)


Ceferino hopes that his good reputation will prove strong enough to exonerate him. For the first time in his life, Ceferino must rely on his reputation as an upright citizen. Pardalot mentions the vulnerability of the center whilst negotiating the crime: “Es natural: un proletario, haga lo que haga, nunca corre el riesgo de dejar de serlo. En cambio un rico, al menor descuido, se encuentra en el más absoluto desamparo.” (50) Marginal figures, or the proletariat, cannot fall from the center or move to the periphery. The wealthy, or the centric, however, fall from grace. In the words of the mayor of Barcelona: “en Barcelona la circulación es muy fluida a todas horas y en toda red viaria” (306).

In the novel, each character typically associated with the center of society is corrupt. The nature of their business, corporate, or in the case of the mayor of Barcelona, political, is tainted. The perpetrator of the crime, Agustín Taberner, was a member of a group of three associates (including Pardalot), who created several businesses together. Ivet, his daughter describes his life: “Mi padre era un niño bien de Barcelona. Estudió la carrera de Derecho y cuando la acabó, sin haber aprobado una sola asignatura, se dedicó a los negocios. Con dos amigotes de su misma condición social y moral…formaron una sociedad.” (260)

Manuel Pardalot and his associates owned multiple businesses whose failure resulted from, “fraude fiscal, blanqueo de dinero, tráfico ilegal de personas o cosas o una mezcla de todo lo antedicho” (185). Agustín Taberner’s abominable performance in his legal studies and the shared “moral” principals of his society exemplify the corruption that characterizes the center.  One learns that the motive for the crime was personal revenge. Accused of disloyalty by his associates, Taberner was forced to surrender all assets related to their businesses and to retire.  According to Ivet, “mi padre quedó al margen…arruinado, enfermo” (261). 

The centric figures hide their scandals in the hope that their corruption remains veiled and their authority thereby protected.  In a private meeting with Abelardo Arderiu, another prominent, wealthy businessman and associate of Pardalot, Ceferino is told: “Yo soy parte de una conjura y mi mujer es parte de una conjura y tengo motivos para pensar que mi conjura y la conjura de mi mujer son dos conjuras diferentes…tengo motivos para pensar que actuamos en bandos opuestos.” (160)

The center appears caught up in a labyrinth of lawlessness in which no clear alliances are drawn and everyone is a player in a conspiratorial plot. Santi, the bodyguard and private investigator to nearly all of the centric figures is most aware of these alliances. He contributes to the unwinding of the mystery by reminding the characters of the inbred nature of their relationships, “la cuestión es saber quién pertenece a un grupo y quién a otro, y quién, al proclamar sus lealtades, dice la verdad o miente” (307).

The mayor of Barcelona is the most striking example of a center figure, a model for authority and order, whose immoral actions are forcing a collapse of center and the generation of a morally ambiguous environment. On the eve of elections, he addresses a gathering of supporters at a fundraising dinner. He acknowledges the ability of his opposition to compete for the election on equal grounds and recognizes their added advantage, youth. He tells the gathered audience, “nos enfrentamos a un enemigo fuerte, decidido, con tan pocos escrúpulos como nosotros, y encima un poco más joven” (133). Despite being plagued by episodes of mild psychosis, “dicen que no estoy bien de la azotea y a veces me pregunto si no tendrán razón” (152), the mayor’s campaign succeeds due to the support of a closed ring of businessmen that benefit from his governance. Ironically, it is this centric figure that depicts the greatest degree of psychosis, not Ceferino, the formerly committed protagonist. During the same fundraising speech, he tells his supporters, “me veo a mí mismo, con el desdoblamiento de personalidad propio de los esquizofrénicos” (134). The mayor’s eccentric manner exemplifies the postmodern destruction of the equivalence between power and knowledge. The association of authority with knowledge is debunked through the mayor’s constant insistence on not knowing or not hearing information. His position depends on his ignorance regarding the secret dealings of Barcelona society.


Moral Ambiguity

What is at the root of the collapse of center and the resulting movement between the center and the periphery? The critic believes that an overwhelming sense of moral ambiguity operates to destabilize modern notions of morality, order and hierarchy within the novel. For Ceferino to succeed in society to make wise decisions that will allow him to stay out of the asylum, he must first distinguish between good and evil and then consciously choose what is right. Problematically, however, Ceferino discovers that his society, postmodern Barcelona society, appears to purposelly evade discriminating between moral and immoral. The force of moral ambiguity appears in the both the dialogue and characterizations of the city and society.

Moral ambiguity acts as the compelling force behind both the collapse of an identifiable center and the movement and flux between the modern center and periphery. As Manuel Pardalot explains to the protagonist in the beginning of the novel, “vivimos en la era de la imagen, y yo quiero dar una buena imagen” (50). The visual, the illusory, the image operate as benchmarks for morality. The very nature of the crime, a self-inflicted robbery is indicative of the blurred line between right and wrong. The conspirators tell Ceferino, “…la operación es sólo una falsa operación. No del todo correcta, pero tampoco ilegal” (50).

Centric figures throughout the novel describe their society using corrupt or morally questionable characterizations. In one of his encounters with the mayor, Ceferino is told, “…una sociedad como la nuestra no funciona si no se untan de cuando en cuando los engranajes” (153). In the same scene, one of two episodes in the novel that consists of an all-character meeting to gather the accumulated evidence, Reinona, the wife of one of the corrupt associates concludes, “en una sociedad civilizada como la nuestra todos dan su aquiescencia y nadie da las órdenes” (153). The decay of the center, represented symbolically by the city itself, does not go unnoticed, however. One prominent lawyer in the novel declares, “el día menos pensado la ciudad va a colapsar” (306).  

The absence of an ethical code governing their society leaves each to operate in his or her own interests. Not even reason, a fundamental measure by which one may predict the actions of others, functions within their society.  In his contemplation of his electoral campaign, the mayor entertains the opposition’s assertion that they are capable of governing more effectively, “Tal vez tengan razón, pero ¿desde cuándo la razón es un argumento válido?”(133). Again, a staple of liberal humanism, the ability to employ reason to find justice, is undermined.

When Ceferino’s initially resists involvement in the crime, Manuel Pardalot and his daughter Ivet appear perplexed at his apparently strong moral compass. They attempt to ridicule the protagonist by trivializing his morality: “A juzgar por su actitud, por sus modales y sobre todo por su forma de vestir, usted debe ser de los que aún se empeñan vanamente en distinguir entre el bien y el mal. (50)

The attempt to distinguish between good and evil is characterized as a vain and naïve effort on behalf of Ceferino. The master narrative of good and evil provides fruit for humor and cynicism. Ultimately, Ceferino is mocked and told that his justification for not accepting the task is based on, “estúpidas razones éticas” (50).

The ultimate indication of moral ambiguity is a reaffirmation of Linda Hutcheon’s assertion postmodern order is “plural and provisional”. Several months after the conclusion of the crime, while working in the salon, Ceferino is interrupted by a former fellow inmate, Cañuto, whom he has not seen since the day of their release. Eager to catch up, Ceferino, inquires, “¿No has vuelto a robar bancos?” (381). Cañuto explains that due to advances in technology and security, his profession has become more difficult. The protagonist however reassures his friend, “Cuanta más tecnología más sencillo debe ser dar el golpe” (381), thereby calling into question the stability of Ceferino’s movement towards the center. The ultimate blow is dealt in the final sentences of the novel. Ceferino begins to negotiate a joint project with Cañuto: “…desde hacía unos días me rondaban la cabeza o por la cabeza, porque ya llevaba invertidos en la peluquería ilusión, tiempo y esfuerzos sobrados y si finalmente me decidía a imprimir a mi vida un sesgo nuevo…las habilidades de Cañuto podían resultarme de mucha utilidad.” (382) Was Ceferino’s movement purely temporary or “provisional”? Given the postmodern nature of his society, the certainty of his commitment to the moral or, for that matter the immoral, remains ambiguous.

ovement of the genre

La aventura del tocador de señoras
not only questions the nature of postmodern society but also the merit of novels within its own genre. The novel affects two forms of movement, one within the novel, and the other with respect to the genre as a whole. Novela negra writers like Mendoza are redefining a genre that has typically been characterized as popular or even “low” culture, due to its lack of innovative form or transcending themes. In part due to its postmodern preoccupations and its inquiries into the subjective essence of such concepts of liberal humanism as hierarchy, order and reason, the novel effectively forces a movement of the genre towards the center of the literary canon. The non-formulaic nature of postmodern detective novels forces a breakaway from the typical categorization of the genre as uniform, homogenous, narratives or simply retelling of old tales. These novels are each heterogeneous narratives relying on the postmodern device of parody to renew a genre.


The language of margins and borders marks a position of paradox: both inside and outside. Given this position, it is not unsurprising that the form that heterogeneity and difference often take in postmodern art is that of parody – the intertextual mode that is paradoxically an authorized transgression, for its ironic difference is set at the very heart of similarity. (Hutcheon 1985, p. 66)


The postmodern detective novel contributes significantly to the destruction of the border distinguishing high from low art. As others have noted before, parody operates as the primary literary device in the reworking of the classic detective novels. Parody permits the exageration and subsequent destruction of the formulaic models typically associated with the genre.

Intertextual parody of canonical American and European classics is one mode of appropriating and reformulating – with significant change – the dominant white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, Eurocentric culture. It does not reject it, for it cannot. Postmodernism signals its dependence by its use of the canon, but it reveals its rebellion through its ironic abuse of it. (Hutcheon 1988, p. 130)


The irony thickens, however, when one stops to consider that this “abuse” of the cannon aids in the postmodern manifestation of the genres’ movement into the cannon.

It would be ridiculous to assert that movement of the genre occurs without the influence of the predecessors to the postmodern detective novel or the masterworks of the Spanish literary tradition. In his analysis of the first two Ceferino novels, José Colmeiro writes: “He (Mendoza) introduced elements from other genres like melodrama, the serial, the police procedural, the historical novel and something typically Spanish, the picaresque novel.” (1994, p.155-6)

The influence of Spanish literary tradition in Mendoza’s novel permeates every page. Thus the marginal or popular novel is defined by the center or cannon and associated with its desire for movement towards that center. According to Linda Hutcheon: “…the decentring of categories of thought always relies on the centers it contests for its very definition (and often its verbal form).” (1988, p. 59)

In conclusion, Eduardo Mendoza’s third novel in the Ceferino series marks a clear break from its preceding novels and in so doing underscores the postmodern nature of the work.  Mendoza’s reworking of the hierarchical positions and creation of an environment of moral ambiguity highlight a collapse of the center of society.  By revaluing the margins, in the form of character movement, urban renewal and the use of a marginalized genre, Mendoza introduces an innovative renovation of the Spanish novela negra by focusing on the postmodern nature of Spanish contemporary society.



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