Nervous Brits need have no fears: Jason Webster's new Spanish detective, Max Camara of Valencia, hates bullfights. Forced to stand in for one of his superiors, he loathes the whole business and when a promising young matador is found murdered, only his professional concern is awakened.
But his feelings are torn when he meets a woman journalist who supports the traditional "sport", and he finds himself involved in controversy. For the banning of bull-fighting is becoming a serious political issue in Spain as a new generation rejects this bloodthirsty cult.
And cult it is, in a sense, which partly explains something that is a profound mystery to non-Spaniards: why so many in this cultivated, brilliant and intelligent nation should be addicted to what appears to be an intensely unpleasant form of torture plus butchery. Camara investigates the training of the matadors, and subjects himself to a trial run, fending off one of the most harmless quadrupeds to discover the terror in being charged at by several hundred kilos of angry cow. And he experiences the fear and adrenalin which surge through the bullfighter, the peculiar courage needed to stand one's ground in the face of rushing horns.
But Camara is not converted to the side of supporting the bullfight, though he comes to understand the excitement generated by the ring. He hates it, "not for what it did to the bull, but for what it did to him", knowing that it awakens his own interior bloodlusts. This leads him to a deeper perception of what motivates a psychopathic killer who flirts with a human victim as the matador twirls his cape and tortures her before committing the final act of slaughter.
Camara is a passionate man, and sex, brandy and flamenco loom large as he pursues his case, running up against ruthless enemies who control the bull farms. This inner journey of one of the most attractive figures to enter recent detective fiction is set amid a splendidly authentic Valencia, an old city wanting to present a modern image as it struggles with its bloodthirsty past.
And there is some fascinating information about the sexuality of the encounter between bull and man. Is the matador taking on a female role; is the fight actually a sexual act? Like the best detective stories, this book becomes a scrutiny of our own most powerful drives and secrets.