It has been nearly a year since I have reviewed my last Ames’ novel, as my plan to read the Jane and Dagobert Brown books in order has been thwarted by lack of availability. So the Ames book I am reviewing today is not out of this series and is instead the second novel from a later series starring Juan Llorca. The other three in the series are The Man in the Tricorn Hat (1960), The Man with Three Chins (1965) and The Man with Three Passports (1967). From what I can gather online Ames did spend some time in Spain and in fact died in Madrid in 1987.
The tale is told from Juan’s perspective or should I say newly made Sergeant Llorca and he has recently arrived to Alcala, having bade fair well to a failed romance in his home town of Madrigal. He quickly finds his friend and fellow officer Paco Lopez and even in these opening pages, Juan begins to step to get entangled in local criminal machinations: A chauffeur who has an eye for the ladies and more money than usual. A fatally attractive woman, who is far from the innocent victim and who seems to have many in her thrall, including Llorca’s superior. A series of raids on local pubs and restaurants, the owners of whom silenced out of fear. A playwright killed in a car accident or was it actually a hit and run? All of which lead back to the owner of the three jaguar cars, self-made man Bill Murphy, who seems more than capable of “arranging” things in between playing with his kite collection and his toy soldiers. To begin with Juan unwittingly gets himself deeper and deeper into this world, knowing far more than is healthy for him. Yet it is when Murphy thinks he can “fix” Juan that events take a decidedly more violent turn and not just against Juan, who is also receiving little in the way of support from his boss. As the story reaches its’ climax it awaits to be seen whether Juan will capitulate, come out on top or go under.
The Setting: The Changing Landscape of Spain
The setting in this story was definitely something which struck me, especially in the opening chapter which intimates how the landscape and the culture is changing. When Juan arrives Paco points to a street named the Rambla, recalling that it ‘cost the taxpayers thirty million pesetas to construct…’ and he also points out the new glass skyscraper built by the Banco de Credito.’ It is telling that he doesn’t know what it is for and that is wasn’t even there last week, suggesting that Alcala is transforming at a rapid speed. Like Juan the reader is probably wondering where the money is coming from and Juan jokes about them having struck oil. Yet Paco replies that it isn’t oil but ‘tourists,’ in particular ‘millionaires and celebrities’ who seem to have flocked to the area. Juan reflects that ‘when… [he] was at school… the province in which Alcala… [was] situated was said to be the most backward in Spain,’ though now this certainly seems to have changed. Although there are signs that the town is not able to completely keep with the modernisation it is undergoing. There are many half-finished constructions and even those finished are not always fully functioning such as the new lavatorial facilities at the police station where the taps do not work. Though I think as the story progresses much of the new building work is controlled by only the few and the same can be said of the subsequent wealth made. Juan himself points to the disparity between the very rich and poor in the city soon after a building site has collapsed (a collapse which is later turns out to be far from accidental):
‘As I crawled through the rubble it struck me as another example of Mr Murphy’s unfailing luck that the Madrid firm had refused to sell him the doomed property. Two children – a little girl in her First Communion dress and a barefooted brat who had been helping his blind grandfather to sell lottery tickets – were not so lucky. They were dead.’
What makes this a poignant moment are the numerous little details that Juan picks out about the victims and it is unsurprising that these images stay with him.
Due to the issues of corruption, racketeering and use of bribery and violence, this story does share some elements of hardboiled novel, with its mean streets and lone hero. And normally to be honest this would not appeal to me, as this is not a genre I tend to enjoy. However, I think what Ames does with these elements, mixing it with other styles and honing in on character psychology and relationships, makes it more approachable for me and I don’t think the “mean street” elements are overdone, violence is kept to a minimum for instance and is not particularly graphic. Moreover, the reader is not confronted with these elements straight away in the story, they are built up to. Characterisation in this story is well done, as it is not easy to always tell who is good and who is bad, people are not always what you think they are and there are a number of surprises at the end of the book. Relationships also play an important role in the central mystery of this book and true to life they are not clearly defined and can be quite murky and complicated at times. There is also a gentle humour to the narrative as well, though not in the zany or verbal repartee manner found in Ames’ Jane and Dagobert novels. I think I still prefer Jane and Dagobert, but I’d definitely recommend this book and I am keen to give the other Juan Llocra stories a try, if I can find them reasonably priced that is.