Victor Del Arbol, La Tristeza Del Samurai (Spanish, 2011)

Regardless of the daunting question: “what is the next great book I’m going to read”, I should still mention the books I’ve finished last month. La Tristeza Del Samurai is a chance encounter, picked at random from my neighborhood library, just because the French publisher, Actes Sud, is quite good at discovering new foreign crime writers. They have published all the Scandinavian thrillers, and I thought: why not try the Southern challengers?

There’s absolutely no samurai here, and nothing related to Japan. The story is set in Spain from 1941 to 1981, moving back and forth through flashbacks to illustrate how Franco pro-nazi dictatorship has long-term impacts over the generations. This is all about revenge and the blur between victims and criminals when it comes to it.

My problem with the book was that it was too violent and much too “noir” for my taste. Bad timing I guess, or maybe I’m growing more sensitive with the years. I could perhaps compare it with Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir and sequels, because the theme of a corrupt society to the core runs in both novels, with policemen, secret police, lawyers and judges far from impartial and the notion that there’s nowhere to hide. Violence is graphic in both books, but perhaps Bernie Gunther, as a tender-at-heart policeman turned PI made a difference. Another difference is that Kerr’s Germany is far away from us, while Del Arbol also demystifies the early 1980s, a period not so distant (well, I can remember it myself, but that’s starting to be history too). The story ends with the aborted coup of 1981, when far-right extremists from the army, secret police etc. tried to overthrow the young democratic regime. Needless to say, Del Arbol is not paid by the National Tourism Board to paint a dainty representation of Spanish society. He’s out there to expose the nasty secrets left to rot from Spain’s dark past.

At the end of the book, which is gripping enough but of course no happy ending, I was slightly confused by all the characters and their familial and partisan links, but also a bit sick by all the gore and blood. Scandinavian crime novels nearly seem clean and nice after this one.