Because of neighbors who've become hypersensitized to my sonorous emoting while engrossed in crime novels, I nearly choked trying to stifle cheers when Geoffrey Freeman dies a slow, extremely agonizing death. But it was Sunday and my nearest neighbors—the next-door beauty parlor folks—were not in, so my yays disturbed no one enough to bang on the pasteboard-thin partition or call 911.
But then, as it so often seems, complications appear. The chief suspect, homely, awkward spinster Mabel Cannon, whose affections for Geoffrey had been cruelly spurned, soon thereafter also dies a slow, extremely agonizing death. Autopsies indicate the two had been poisoned by a lethal mushroom known as llargsomi, which closely resembles the delectably edible esclatasang. They grow wild in proximity to one another on Spain’s Balearic island of Mallorca, but no Mallorquin would ever mistake the one for the other—or so all likely suspects assure Inspector Enrique Alvarez, himself a Mallorquin, assigned to investigate the presumed murders of the two transplanted English residents.
Whereas the pulse of other fictional detectives predictably would quicken as a plot such as this thickens, Geoffrey’s autopsy, disproving the initial theory he’d died of cholera, drives Alvarez to drink. The game afoot for him leads straight to the nearest cafe for a brandy or three. And the brandies continue as each Mallorquin he questions welcomes him with spirits and bonhomie, and more spirits. Neither he nor any of those he interviews expresses any love for the English. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he confides over a glass of brandy to Ramez, his cousin’s husband, “if I had the chance I’d bump off all the English for nothing.”
The only fictional police detective I know of whose drinking legs are in league with Alvarez’s is Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith’s vodka-swilling Moscow cop who at least has an excuse, being beaten, frozen, irradiated, stabbed, and shot in the line of duty. Obese and physically unfit to play any TV cop other than Chief Ironside, Alvarez does catch some verbal abuse, but it’s from his superior, a Spaniard from Madrid, who first orders Alvarez to root out and destroy all llargsomi on the island, then, when told how impossible that would be, orders him to arrest somebody—anybody, it would seem. “That popinjay!” Alvarez’s cousin tells him. “What does he know about anything? If he isn’t satisfied with the way things are done on this island, why doesn’t he go back to Madrid?”
For all that, even though Alvarez does solve the murders, he hasn’t made any arrests in the three books of the series I’ve read thus far. Mallorquin justice, perhaps, or Roderic Jeffries’s clever plotting...or maybe the boss from Madrid has a point.
One thing is beyond speculation: Alvarez is an almost hopeless romantic. We learn more in Troubled Deaths about Juana-Maria, the love of his life he lost in an as yet unexplained fatal encounter with a motor vehicle. We’ve gotten incremental bits of the story in each episode, just enough to lure one further into the series. His fantasy surrogate Juana-Maria in this story is poor Mabel Cannon’s only friend, Caroline Durrel, whom Alvarez presumably would exempt from his bumping-off-Mallorca’s-English-inhabitants fantasy.
“It wasn’t her looks, thought Alvarez with bewilderment, although she was as beautiful as an orange grove at blossom time. It wasn’t that she promised that ripe, earthy experience which twisted a man’s soul–she didn’t. It was because there was an air of simple goodness about her which reminded him with aching intensity of Juana-Maria.”
Not that Alvarez turned up his nose--“broad enough to make a landing space for a squadron of flies”--at the idea of earthy experience. He muses that “these days most young women whether standing or walking struck him as erotic...The tragedy of middle age was that a man still dreamed, but the volcano in his belly had died down to just a little camp fire.”
Staring into a bar mirror at one of his ubiquitous haunts, he sees “a middle-aged man with lined, coarsely featured face, whose eyes were bloodshot and whose hair was beginning to thin. You simple fool, he [says] to his reflection. You, a failure, a peasant without a single cuarterada of land to call his own, old enough to be her father...But her golden image continued to dance in his mind...When he had looked at her he had seen the quiet moon in the star-studded sky, the sparkling of still seas, the distant mountains framed against a sunset sky. And when she had looked at him, what had she seen? An ugly, time-scarred peasant.”
A man who knows his limitations, as Harry Callahan, another fictional cop once said, but, as yet another, Colombo, knew, who uses humility to his advantage. When he comes upon an English murder suspect in Caroline’s company, the suspect insults Alvarez, presuming the detective doesn’t speak English. I easily imagined Peter Falk’s New York accent and humble dissembling in the Mallorquin’s response: “ ‘I speak a very little, señor, but that little not very well,’ said Alvarez, with the self-deprecating politeness which in Spain sometimes took the place of rudeness. ‘I fear I make many mistakes.’ ”
Caroline comes to his rescue. “ ‘Well,’ she says, ‘it sounds to me as if you speak it wonderfully well...I only wish I could speak Spanish half as well.’ Her eyes were deep blue where Juana-Maria’s had been dark brown, yet to look into them was to look at what had lain in Juana-Maria’s.”
It’s a long series, friends--some three dozen episodes, and not all are on Kindle. Woe is the curious romantic in me.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]