Monday, February 15, 2016

Review: A Body in Barcelona by Jason Webster

A Body in Barcelona by Jason Webster, August 2015, 384 pages, Chatto & Windus, ISBN: 0701189398

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

North Africa.
Ex-Spanish Légion commander and Spanish patriot, Colonel José Terreros, makes his way through the streets of the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the North African coast. As soon as he is at his desk in the Légion's Veterans Welfare Association, the owner of the nearby bar brings him a cup of coffee and waits reverently for the Colonel's pronouncements on the state of the world. Yes, Terreros has heard the news, the border problems and the would-be immigrants' deaths. They drowned in their panic, running into the sea after the border police used rubber bullets. Madrid remains blind to the situation. And not only here in Ceuta. Disintegration threatens the home country itself with the actions of the separatists. The bar owner leaves and the Colonel returns to his computer. He opens some files, his most secret files.

Police inspector Max Cámara is at a police award ceremony in Barcelona, the outcome of a three-week long investigation into the death of a protester, possibly at the hands of the Catalan riot squad. The investigation was conducted by a team drawn from police forces across Spain and Max was picked as the Valencian representative. The riot squad officers were cleared, hence the award ceremony welcoming them back into the fold. Cámara had disagreed and was naturally no longer popular with the Catalan police, so he is glad of the return ticket in his pocket. Turning to leave, he is stopped by Josep Segundo Pont, interior minister with the Catalan government. Max can't help wondering why he is in receipt of such an honour and Pont is eager to thank Cámara for his open stance during the investigation. But Pont also appears more anxious as the conversation continues. He finishes by telling Max that the country “needs men like him”.
In Valencia Max's homecoming is low-key to say the least. His girlfriend Alicia is still traumatised by her experiences at the hands of right-wing extremists during an incident which involved Max. Their relationship suffers equally, the gap between them widening. Max decides to grab a drink in a bar somewhere but changes his mind at the last moment, visiting his old friends Berto and Daniel at the anarchist collective's food bank and shelter. As soon as Max enters he can sense a change. Posters praising “Resistance” and “Struggle” plaster the walls. This is no longer simply a food bank for the nation's new poor – the atmosphere is more politicised. Welcomed and fed, Max is drawn into the discussions and invited to hear their plans, subject to his presence being sanctioned by democratic vote of course.
Next day, Max is back at work at the Jefetura, in the office of his two-man Special Crime Unit. The atmosphere points up the frustration of being a unit without cases to investigate. Their old unit, the Murder squad, is keeping them at arm's length and currently the hours of the Special Crime Unit are being spent in pointless bureaucracy. But the discovery of a young boy's body will soon change all that. The child was the illegitimate son of a Valencian multi-millionaire businessman and it is just such a delicate situation that calls for the skills of the Special Crime Unit ….

A child's death, perhaps a kidnapping gone wrong, leads Cámara into an investigation which starts to strike political undercurrents. With his and Alicia's relationship failing and an approach by a security agent for Max's co-operation in “another area”, Max's life becomes very complicated in this the fifth in Jason Webster's “Max Cámara” series. The story involves its readers in Max's life almost as much as in the crime investigation but such is the quality of Webster's story-telling – the reader can drop into the plot and feel of this latest book whether they have read previous titles or not. This is a style of crime writing not to everyone's taste nor perhaps is Max's political stance. Me? I lap it up. As ever, Max is not very “procedural” about his police work and this, together with political duplicity, psychologically well-rooted characters and an action-packed finish, makes for an exciting crime novel steeped in the politics of contemporary Spain. What will happen to Max next? I don't know but I want to find out.

Lynn Harvey, February 2016

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