Monday, October 11, 2010

Review of Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Bitter Lemon Press, 2010; Spanish 2006)

It’s the late 1970s and Argentina is governed by a military junta, casting a shadow of fear across the country. Amancio is a playboy from a rich, landed family, married to the beautiful Lara, who demands the finest things in life. Having exhausted his fortune he has taken to loaning money from various creditors, finally turning to the loan shark, Biterman, an Auschwitz survivor. When Biterman calls in the debt, Amancio decides to take matters into his own hands to save the family estate, turning to his friend, Major Giribaldi, who specialises in making people disappear. Superintendent Lascano is a homicide detective mourning his wife recently killed in a car accident. On a raid of a brothel he discovers Eva, a left-wing dissident, hiding from another kind of raid a few doors away. Eva is the spitting image of Lascano’s dead wife and he takes her in, a strange bond forming between them. Despite the risk, Lascona seeks new papers for Eva, but then he discovers three dead bodies dumped on the roadside outside of the city. Two are clearly junta assassinations, but the third seems more opportunistic. It doesn’t take long for Lascano to discover the truth, putting him on a dangerous collision course with the military authorities.

Needle in a Haystack is a noir crime novel blended with social/political observation. The story is not driven by a ‘whodunnit’ or ‘howdunnit’ narrative, as it is fairly clear from the start who killed the third body and why. Rather the hook is who will win out between Lascano and Giribaldi; whether justice will prevail. I’ll avoid a spoiler, but needless to say the book has one of the best endings to a novel I’ve read so far this year. Throughout the characterisation and social relations are keenly portrayed and the prose is well crafted. The plot is relatively straightforward, but that doesn’t detract from the reading experience. There were one or two things that didn’t quite ring right, such as Biterman’s backstory, but otherwise one felt immersed in the claustrophobic life of Buenos Aires in the late 1970s. Overall, an informative and entertaining slice of noir, lifted by a great ending.

8 comments:

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Excellent review Rob. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this book.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. It sounds terrific.

Cathy said...

Thanks for the review. I've just added it to my wish list.

Bernadette in Australia said...

I had this on my wishlist for ages, then bought it a few weeks ago 'cos it was available for my new eReader and now I just have to find the time to slip it in my reading schedule. Pity the hours you need to read a book don't come with the purchase price

Rob Kitchin said...

I don't think this is a spoiler, but from the minute the bird is released from its cage the whole book shifts register. It did it for me. I got to the end and thought 'wow'. It was fine up to then, but the end left me punch drunk for a little while.

Bernadette, what a great idea - a time top-up with every purchase.

Paul D. Brazill said...

A new name to me. Sounds great.

Maxine said...

I too like the way he carried it through to the end without deviation. Good man, good book. Looking forward to the next one...

Ernesto Mallo said...

Thank you for the review, it helps to keep on writing. Needle in a Hastay sequel will be released next june in UK and in july in the US, also by Bitter Lemon Press under the title of "Sweet Money".