Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review of Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster (2011, Chatto & Windus)

Chief Inspector Max Camara works for the homicide division in Valencia. On a hot afternoon he’s asked to stand in as the judge of a bullfight in which Spain’s most famous matador, Jorge Blanco, is starring. Camara is no lover of bullfighting and has to rely on advice to appropriately recognize the matadors’ exploits. Afterwards he accepts an invitation to go to a bar with some of the key players in the event. The bar is disturbed by anti-bullfighting protestors, then word comes that Blanco has been found dead in the ring. Camara is assigned to the case in atmosphere charged by the run up to a mayoral election in which the incumbent mayor has promised to ban the sport and the impeding festival of Fallas. Shortly afterwards Blanco’s manager is found murdered by a lake, killed in a similar fashion. Camara, already under pressure due an incident with another officer, starts to feel the heat as various interests try to disrupt his investigation.

The real strength of Or The Bull Kills You is the sense of place, the detailing of the history and culture of bullfighting, and the insights into the political machinations of local politics and the police system. The characterisation is relatively standard fare: Camara is the talented but awkward cop who rails against the system and falls easily into women’s beds; the other characters are fine without lighting up the page. The plot works okay until near the end, when it starts to become a little ragged and the finale is contrived for dramatic effect which works to undermine the credibility of the tale. There were also some elements that didn’t seem to add up in my mind. A nice touch is the theme of impotence that runs throughout. Overall, an interesting, competent first novel that needed a little more consistency of plot to go with the well developed sense of place and history.

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