Playwright and now novelist, Ernesto Mallo’s first book, NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK (2010) is the first in a trilogy, translated by Jethro Soutar. The novel is set in Buenos Aires during the late 1970′s dictatorship. The prose style is spare, uncompromising and unflinching in showing the tyranny of the regime under what’s called the “Dirty War.” Although the novel length is short, it doesn’t impede the complexity of the plot nor shortchange the development of the story or its characters. This is an excellent historical novel. A brief synopsis:
Superintendent Lascano is a detective working under the shadow of military rule in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. He is sent to investigate the discovery of two bodies but when he arrives at the roadside crime scene he finds three. Two are clearly the work of the junta’s death squads, and so should not be investigated by the police, but the other one seems different. Lascano follows the trail, leading the reader on a tour of a Buenos Aires poisoned to the core by the military regime.
My first question is…what is the inspiration for the title of this book? Aside from that, I have to admit that it took time for this story to grow on me but once it did I found myself thinking about this story; and the characters and the sequence of events that led up to the crime itself and the aftermath kept me riveted. The ending is another story. Once I hit the sweet spot read as understood how each thread connected then I started to really become invested in this story and its outcome which ends in uncertainty but thank goodness there’s a sequel, SWEET MONEY, that I can put my hands on.
The author has a straight forward writing style that I liked very much. He doesn’t waste a word. I can’t say that this novel will have wide appeal. This is one of those stories where every action, word, or deed has impact and significance. The story is quite dark, with some scenes still lingering with me after closing the last page. The author’s strength lies in conveying the emotion, fear and alienation of a oppressed people under dictatorship. Everyday the military are seen going after subversives including children and even the blind. People being taken away by men with guns to be tortured or “disappeared.”
Superintendent Lascano, the lead character in this series, finds himself mired in a case in his search for justice and he does so at a personal cost to himself. A moneylender is found dead amid the bodies of two other people who were killed. Lascano is not allowed to investigate murders that are executions carried out by the military and it’s obvious two of the bodies were the result of an execution.
The other body looks suspicious, so Lascano decides to investigate the death of the moneylender and it doesn’t take him long to figure out what happened but to his horror the path of his investigation leads him straight to the military. The ending was very suspenseful and even somewhat surprising in its uncertainty. While the story is narrated in an unconventional manner, it does follow the basic police procedural style that includes the forensic details of the case. The setting was a character in itself which was an added bonus. My heart was in my throat towards the end, when Lascano’s case makes a dramatic turn. I now must read the sequel even though I have a copy of Nesbo’s Phantom waiting for my attention.
The writing is very atmospheric and very different like I mentioned earlier, with dialogue spoken sans dialogue tags or without identifying the speaker in a scene between two characters. I was able to discern who was speaking to whom without much difficulty at all but at times it could/did get somewhat confusing when the dialogue goes on for more than a paragraph. It all felt very intuitive though. Here is an example of what I’m talking about:
“What’s this? It’s the key to a safe deposit box in this bank. Ask for Graciela, tell her you’re my niece and that you need to get something. Take out all the Tony Ventura cash. OK, back in a minute.
Ernesto Mallo is a welcome find and a significant voice in the genre of crime fiction. His novel offers insight into this period of “state terrorism” and seeing how the circumstances even for people who are just doing their job can easily find themselves targeted and killed on a whim was horrifying. It’s a very frightening notion to live under these kinds of conditions.
I thought Mallo’s characters were fleshed out well. Lascano is a chain-smoking police officer and a good one. He’s also a grieving widow, who after the death of his wife, found nothing to live for until his friend, a forensic doctor helped him recover. It’s during a raid of a brothel that Lascano meets Eva, a young woman on the run, who was apart of a subversive cell that was recently disbanded. When Lascano sees her for the first time, he is struck by how much she looks like his dead wife. He brings Eva home to protect her and the two of them slowly begin a tentative friendship/relationship. Then there’s Major Giribaldi. I have to mention him as he stood out and not in a good way. I don’t want to mention every character but will say that Lascano has a great supporting cast in here.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK is a novel that made an impression. It’s an intelligently written historical novel that transcends the crime fiction genre. It’s an attractive read for those who enjoy unconventional stories set in exotic locations. I’m a big fan of novels such as these. I must give thanks to Maxine who reviewed this book last year. Other notable reviews can be found at: Euro Crime (Karen), Reactions to Reading (Bernadette) and The Game’s Afoot (Jose). Off to read the sequel. I see it pays to wait sometimes. My grade, A.
Notes: I bought this book (Amazon link) last year and the publisher is Bitter Lemon Press. I plan to look out for more titles from this publisher.