Book Review: Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

NiaHaystack Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

Translated by Jethro Soutar. 

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010.

Inspector Lascano lives in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship. It was a terrible regime, first encountered by me in book form in Isabelle Allende’s marvellous The House of the Spirits,  and it seems to me, a person who is lucky enough not to have lived through this experience, that the times were so cruel that they must be impossible to write about directly and without allegory or magical allusions.

Ernesto Mallo disagrees; his detached novel is measured and very well plotted. He tells the story of Superintendent Lascano, a widower who cannot get over the death of his wife, living in an apartment still containing all her clothes and other reminders of her existence. His only friend is a pathologist, and the two men meet occasionally for a drink or meal.

The story is told from the perspectives of a half-dozen or so characters, but not chronologically, so it is satisfying and illuminating when another piece of the jigsaw falls into place. At its heart, the novel is a standard murder investigation. Lascano is sent out to look at the bodies of two young people who have been shot. When he gets to the location out of town where the victims have been abandoned, he finds that there are three bodies, not two. Because Lascano cannot investigate the case of the young man and woman, as the police are not allowed to interfere with the military’s executions,  he decides to look into the shooting of the other victim, an older man. The investigation carries on in parallel with our gradual discovery of how the crimes happened, and follows through to the aftermath and beyond.

As well as being cleverly plotted crime fiction , the book is a moving love story.  By its refusal to opine and overtly denounce the terrible regime, but choosing instead to cooly report numerous “every day” atrocities that everyone has to live with, the novel achieves a powerful emotional impact. Several of the subsidiary characters really live on the page, and I enjoyed (in a grim kind of a way) finding out how their stories came to intersect. At the end, the author completely follows through on his theme, which means that unlike many examples of crime fiction there is a proper ending and a genuinely interesting potential for a future novel.

Ernesto Mallo, according to the biography provided in the book, is a former member of the anti-Junta guerrilla movement. He’s an essayist, journalist and playwright. This novel is the first of a trilogy, originally written in 2005. I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two, if we are lucky enough for them to be translated into English.

I thank Karen Meek of Euro Crime for so kindly giving me a copy of this novel. Her review was published at Euro Crime last Sunday, and can be seen here. The novel was also recently reviewed by Norman at Crime Scraps blog, and by Glenn at International Noir Fiction.

As an aside, both Karen and Glenn have likened this novel to the De Luca series by Carlo Lucarelli. I have read Lucarelli's other series (Almost Blue and Day After Day – review t/c) but clearly,  I must now read his De Luca books!