I really enjoyed this book for quite a few reasons. It’s a great story for a start, and Jason Webster has invented a wonderful character in Max Camara, the detective charged with solving the murder of Jose Blanco, one of Spain’s top bullfighters. The novel is set in Valencia and tells you a lot more about the city than many guidebooks do. This is the first of a series, and would work really well on television – although the main characters are so clear in my mind I would doubtless disagree with the casting! It is really unusual to read about modern Spain in a novel, with the characters looking and behaving like people actually do in the 21st century.
Max Camara enjoys his food, and the importance most Spanish people attach to eating well is shown very well here. Camara is always popping into a bar for a tapa and a beer before going to see a contact or basically do whatever he is supposed to be doing, and let’s face it, that’s pretty much par for the course in everyday Spanish life. Other characters in the book, such as Alicia, the journalist Camara takes a fancy to, always know a little place nearby where they do terrific tortilla or whatever, and the quality of what the characters eat and drink is always commented on, just like Spaniards always do.
Alicia is a specialist in bullfighting and explains to Camara – and to us the readers – the rudiments of the art and its significance in Spanish culture. Camara is not an aficionado, but happens to find himself presiding over the corrida where one of the matadors – Blanco – ends up not only dead but also mutilated with his own sword and left in the bullring, like one of the bulls he killed. Blanco, who has returned to the ring after retiring and has reinvigorated bullfighting with his reckless, maverick style, seems to be inspired by the real-life bullfighter Jose Tomas, whose circumstances are similar in some ways, and is also credited with bringing glamour and excitement back to the corrida.
Webster has obviously had a lot of fun composing his characters by taking bits and pieces from real celebrities and personality types and mixing them up to create credible identities that you could easily imagine meeting for yourself. Although the main theme is bullfighting, he has steered well away from Spanish stereotypes.
The main character in this novel is however Valencia itself. The story unfolds during Las Fallas, the festival which has just taken place in the city, where giant figures of Spanish personalities are paraded through the streets and burned at the end of the festivities, with a continous soundtrack of deafening firecrackers. Camara walks around the city, past landmarks such as the ornate Norte station and the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Ruzafa, a hitherto unfashionable neighbourhood that is getting more gentrified by the day. He hangs out in bars in the Carmen area, visits suspects in the Cabanyal district down by the sea and drives down to the Albufera, the freshwater lake and wetland area south of the city where the all-important rice is grown – and where Blanco’s manager is found murdered.
This is a book to start reading before you go to Valencia, but you want to read most of it while you are actually there, preferably sitting at a pavement cafe and watching people go by who look like they just might pop up in the next chapter.