Watching the Detective

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Review of 'The Angst-Ridden Executive', Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Serpent's Tail £6.99

One of Europe's best known writers, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán was born in Barcelona in 1939, the year of Franco's civil war victory. He became an underground activist when he was a 20 year old student. Arrested in 1962, he was beaten up by the notorious torturer, police inspector Vicente Creix, and spent 18 months for political offences in Lérida jail. Throughout his successful literary career he has remained faithful to the PSUC, the Catalan Communist Party, which he joined while in prison.

Montalbán's enormous output includes poetry, novels, essays and journalism. He is most famous for his Pepe Carvalho detective novels--these were big sellers that chronicled the 1970s transition from dictatorship to parliamentary government, and the years of disenchantment that followed.

'The Angst-Ridden Executive' is the third Carvalho book. It introduces the characters who form Carvalho's 'family' and run through the 15-book series--his callgirl girlfriend Charo, the ex-fascist Bromide, who acts as the detective's eyes and ears on the street, and Biscuter, the car thief he met in jail who becomes his 'secretary'.

As well as the humour Montalbán extracts from this plebeian group of misfits, their histories give the series resonance and depth. His books are very much about recovering the crushed memories of the oppressed, written out of history by Franco and ignored since by the Socialist Party.

'The Angst-Ridden Executive' is a political thriller set in 1977, at the height of the mass struggle that characterised the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Fast moving and wisecracking as a thriller should be, it exudes the freedom of the times--the joys of sex, drink and food are described exuberantly, all to the background of street demonstrations and endless talk.

The insalubrious Antonio Jauma, womaniser and Spanish representative of a multinational, is found dead with cologne-soaked knickers in his pocket. Nearly everyone jumps to the obvious conclusion--he has died because of some sex intrigue. Everyone, that is, but Carvalho--and in one of the subtle shifts in perception that Montalbán enjoys, we find that Jauma has been killed not because he is a Don Juan but because he is honest. He was threatening to expose the illegal financing of the far right by the company he works for. As a character in the book explains, right wing terrorism may not eventually be needed, but the bourgeoisie likes to cover all contingencies.

'The Angst-Ridden Executive' is the book to take with you to Barcelona. It combines an awareness of history, solidarity with the poor and hatred of a rancid right.