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!


16 thoughts on “Book Review: Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

  1. Maxine – Oh, this does sound like a wonderful read. It is interesting how often authors from that era use magical realism and other elements to tell the story of those awful years; interesting that Mallo doesn’t. Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful and well-written review. OK, so Mallo goes on my TBR list of authors; no doubt about that….

  2. Maxine-great review. I hope you enjoy the De Luca series books which from memory do not quite have as much meat on them as the Mallo?
    So many writers try and be too clever with atmosphere, or idiosyncratic characters, and forget the plot needs a start, a middle and an ending. I did like his interesting technique with dialogue that gave an immediacy and tension to the book. I do hope we get those two others….

  3. This one sounds like a delicious puzzle. But, as I said yesterday, I am keeping my eyes firmly closed (how fortunate that I can write without looking at the keyboard).

  4. Maxine– Interesting review,You mention Isabelle Allende’s House of Spirits.
    As far as I recall -she does not mention the name of a country in the novel-
    but it is likely to refer to the equally repressive regime in her own country-at the time-
    Chile -rather than Argentina.

  5. This was already on my wishlist after the previous reviews you mention but now it has 3 stars in my complicated wishlist system which means it goes directly into my shopping basket during my next order.

  6. Well… Am I glad to read those wonderful words about my work. It really helps to keep on writing. Let me tell you that the second novel of the Lascano series is being translated into english at this very moment. Its title in spanish is “Delincuente Argentino”, which means “Argentinian Criminal”, but we don’t know yet what the title in english shall be. And also that at this very moment I’m writing the third one from Lascano. Yesterday was my birthday. I’ll take your wonderfull review as a present for the ocassion. Best. Ernesto

  7. This sounds like a great book. Don’t know if I can read it as I know a bit about that period in Argentinian history and it’s tough to face it in detail. But I will try as Mallo sounds like a fantastic author and historian and developer of characters and one to be given total support.

  8. Simon – I don’t recall the country location either, in that book or in her equally upsetting second novel about the disappeared, which I found so harrowing. I think the author herself is also Venezuelan in part (though now lives in the USA) – I mention it because I have friends in Venezuela and when I visited them (in the 1990s) I met several Argentinians who lived there and told me the most awful things about life in their own land, including about the Grandmothers of the Plaza di Mayo. What tragically awful and upsetting regimes.
    Ernesto – thank you so much for commenting here, how very kind of you. And thank you for the great news about the translation of your next novel. Happy belated birthday!

  9. Maxine
    Isabel Allende is Chilean –the first cousin once removed
    of the elected President Salvador Allende -who was deposed-
    and killed by the junta. Because of her name she fled to
    Caracas –Venezuela–where she lived for some time -before moving
    permanently to California. She writes about her homeland
    Chile in ‘My Invented Country’

  10. There is a fantastic movie, “The Official Story,” about a woman teacher in Argentina who lives a mainstream life, then starts to wonder where her adopted daughter came from, and then the tension begins. A grandmother whose children had “disappeared” looks for her granddaughter. It’s stars the great Argentinian actress, Norma Aleandro.

  11. Thanks, Simon. I knew about the Chilean part of the story, I just could not quite remember where Venezuela came in.
    Thanks for the news about the movie, Kathy, I might see if I can find that. This topic is covered in Mallo’s book too. The mother of one person I met in Venezuela was one of the Grandmothers of the P di M.

  12. A post just to let you know that the second novel of the Lascano trilogy will be published by Bitter Lemon Press. The release is planned for July 2011 in the UK/Europe and in October 2011 in the US/Canada.
    Best wishes,


  13. Pingback: Progress on reading books eligible for the 2011 International Dagger | Petrona

  14. Pingback: Pre-shortlist update on reading International Dagger possibles | Petrona

  15. Pingback: Book Review: Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo | Petrona

Comments are closed.