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by Jason Webster
Chatto & Windus, July 2013
240 pages
$24.95 CAD
ISBN: 0701186909

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Chief Inspector Max Cámara, still on leave from a breakdown he incurred following his last case, has come to his boyhood hometown, Albacete, from Valencia as the grandfather who raised him has had a stroke and is in hospital. As frequently happens in such circumstances, unresolved issues from the past threaten to overwhelm the present, a process accelerated by events that have just occurred in the city.

His great-grandfather, Maximiliano Cámara, an anarchist and thus a part of that "other Spain" that Franco was determined to destroy, was arrested in 1942 after years of hiding. He was dragged away while his little son watched, never to return. He was secretly executed and dumped in a mass grave and that very grave is now being opened in the hopes of identifying the victims buried there and restoring them to public memory. It has taken some seventy years before the people of Albacete feel ready to try to come to terms with past history.

Coincidentally, a young girl's body has been found. She was raped and murdered and dumped on the same waste ground where Max's older sister had been found, similarly treated, thirty years before. Her murder, still unsolved, was the catalyst for the breakdown of Max's family, which finally resulted in his going to live with his grandfather. This may well have been the event that caused Max to become a policeman, a career choice his anarchist grandfather, Hilario, has little but contempt for.

When his boyhood friend Yago, now also a policeman, enlists his aid to look into suspicious saffron dealings in a nearby town, Max pays a visit to Pozoblanco, centre of the local saffron harvest and a kind of anarchist commune. Suspicions about whatever is going on there have been aroused since Pozoblanco seems to ship far more saffron than its fields can possibly produce and some sort of "saffron mafia" appears to be in charge of the trade. If it comes as a surprise that something so harmless (if delightful) as saffron could be at the heart of serious illegality, the spice is perhaps the most highly-priced and most adulterated seasoning in the world. The presumption is that serious adulteration is taking place in Pozoblanco, the product bulked out with the addition of pretty near anything that will fool the eye if not the taste buds. It struck me that, given the market price of pure saffron, you could cut it with cocaine and still make a tidy profit. So it is not surprising that Max is shot at and almost killed on the road out of the town.

Webster pulls all these threads together handily in the course of this brief but compelling book. But it is the character of Max that is the main attraction here. He has been a divided character all along, the heir of his family's anarchism, he is himself a libertarian by instinct if not by conviction. Yet he has enlisted himself on the side of authority and order. It is a division that has been tearing him apart for a long time and now, with his return to Albacete, it may be one that can be finally be resolved. Toward the very end of the novel, Max almost laughingly describes his grandfather as an "anarchist detective," but it would not be far off the mark to see that Max himself is ready to take on that role. He has been given an ultimatum by his bosses: either come back off his sick leave or quit the force. We do not know for certain how he will choose, but I very much look forward to finding out what it is.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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