Book review: The Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

Translated by Patrick Camiller.
If  the Swedish authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, writing in the 1960s and 70s, are often held to be the parents of the modern police-procedural crime novel, then the Spanish Manuel Vazquez Montalban, writing a decade or more later, is held to be as significant for detective fiction. So much so that the author Andrea Camilleri named his Italian police chief Salvo Montalbano after the Spanish writer, sadly now deceased.
In THE SOUTHERN SEAS, written in 1979 but not translated into English until about 20 years later and published by Serpent's Tail, private detective Pepe Carvalho is commissioned by the wife of a missing millionaire businessman, Stuart Pedrell, to find her husband after his disappearance a year ago – assumed to have departed for a new life in Polynesia. That is, until his body is discovered in a run-down tenement block in a run-down area of Barcelona.
The bulk of the book concerns Carvalho’s interrogation of everyone connected with the life of the dead man, in an attempt to discover where he has spent the missing year. Carvalho has to don many personae in this process, involving him as it does in highbrow literary and metaphysical debate as well as dealing with the advances of the dead man’s nubile daughter. Unfortunately, I somewhat parted company with the book at this point, as books in which older men “take advantage” of vulnerable young women (however “inappropriate” their behaviour) make me cringe. In this case, I found it hard to sympathise with Carvalho’s (or any of the male characters’) self-indulgent and selfish attitude to women, which is Neanderthal.
There is charm in Carvalho’s refusal to toe the line to the health police, and his almost self-enforced, mechanical enjoyment of as much food and drink as he can ingest or imbibe. I also liked the images of post-Franco Spain, a country struggling to find a future in the fantasies of Communist ideology. And the investigation, during which the dogged Carvalho refuses to tell anyone, even his employer, what he has found out until he eventually gets to the truth, is admirable and, in the end, poignant.
There is something cold about this book, particularly its attitude to women—not only Pedrell’s daughter but the dead man’s young activist girlfriend and Carvalho’s longstanding female “companion” (a prostitute) seem to my eyes to come in for undeserved sneering. Even Carvalho’s manic and vast consumption of food and drink conveys none of the sublime appreciation felt by Camilleri’s Montalbano. I admire the plotting and the intellectual depth of the book, but I couldn’t warm to it.

Read about this author and his books at Serpent's Tail, the publisher's website.

Review of Tattoo, another novel by Montalban, by Mike Ripley at Euro Crime.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: The Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this review. As I’ve come to admire about your reivews, it’s through, frank and very helpful. As I read your review, and that about how you describe Carvalho’s personality, he reminds me – just a little – of Roderick Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez. Alvarez, of course, isn’t the Neanderthal that Carvalho seems to be (I confess I haven’t read this book, but he is, in his own way, just as self-indulgent. That’s one reason for which, although I liked the Alvarez mysteries (at least some of them), I’ve never been an Alvarez fan. Sounds as though I wouldn’t be a Carvalho fan, either…

  2. Good review as always. I think I’ll give it a miss. There’s enough women being sneered at in every day life that I don’t need to go looking for it.

  3. No, I am not tempted either.
    A friend of mine ran into a similar problem recently. She read a crime novel written by one of the participants in our writing course, and though nothing was wrong with the plot, really, she cringed at the view on women. So afterwards she had to behave as if she hadn´t read it, because she didn´t want to tell him what she thought about it.

  4. I got a review copy of another Pepe Carvalho book (I forget the name) a while back, and reviewed it unfavorably. I agree about the character’s attitudes toward women, but beyond that I found him a jerk in almost every other way, a guy with too much “integrity” to relate to any other human beings at all, except with contempt. Also the translation was lousy.

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