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Book review: 'Barcelona Shadows' by Marc Pastor; trans. Mara Faye Lethem

A horrific yet riveting piece of Catalan Gothic that is as gruesome as it is gripping


When John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote Let the Old Dreams Die a sequel to his story, Let the Right One In, he gave us a glimpse of his nerve-wracking child vampire in the streets of Barcelona. Where else? That louche, dramatic city, “the Fiery Rose, an old lady with a battered soul”, as Pastor describes her, is also the background for this horrific yet riveting piece of Catalan Gothic.

Here, in the early years of the 20th century, children are disappearing and bodies found drained of blood. Greedy, sensual and endearingly human, Inspector Moises Corvo tries to protect the neglected youngsters who are such easy prey for the dangerous Enriqueta and her voodoo potions. Two grave-robbers employed by the Austrian immigrant, Dr Baumgartner, dig up a headless body and set the plot in action. Baumgartner believes in monsters and dissects in search of them, but Corvo and his sidekick, the elegantly moustachioed Inspector Malsano, are sleuthing on the trail of human misdemeanour, even though it leads to the highest levels of Barcelona society and a casino that masks the supplying of children to rich paedophiles; and even though the police station becomes mysteriously filled with fat black flies. But Corvo follows determinedly, no matter the obstacles in his way. As the narrator says, “Corvo is a dog – no-one pisses in his territory”. He has a pleasing contempt for Sherlock Holmes, that pedant for whom the world is logical when in reality it is composed of errors and irrationality.

The weirdness of the city totally reinforces this vision of wild absurdities – what can the police do about a man who has sex with pot-plants? The book is populated with extraordinary characters – the sulphuric seller of cage birds, little Angelina with her twitchy eyes.The very narrator is a shudder-making creature: who exactly is the teller of this tale, the “Inexorable One” from whom cats always hide, who doubles as the croupier in the casino? The book is full of dark hints and oblique suggestions, so that it almost comes as a shock when we learn the explicit horrors of Enriqueta’s life and what is in her basket of plum jam. What, for that matter, is in the innocent-seeming cod-liver capsules?

It’s a book that makes the reader doubt the sanity of life itself. The plot shoots along at speed and the writing is extraordinarily vivid, taking an oft-told tale but rendering it now in sharp epigrams, now in haunting sketches of the city. There’s a strong sense, too, of the European literary inheritance, for Corvo is a great reader, with references to Hamlet’s “Mousetrap”, and Mephistopheles’s remark to Faust that “blood is a very special juice.” Highly recommended.

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