Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites was the book up for discussion at my latest mystery book group meeting, and I am, in spite of having thought about the book before the meeting quite a lot and having spent several hours discussing it with the group, still not quite sure how I feel about it. I liked the book when I first started reading it, but then at some point I began having doubts, and then I enjoyed it again, and then I doubted, and after I finished my reaction wasn’t any clearer. Then I listened to other members of the group explain why they didn’t like it, and it was hard not to be swayed by the general consensus.
I’m not usually so indecisive. The problem seems to be that the book never quite came together for me, so I liked this part of it, didn’t like that part, and could never quite pull everything together to have a real opinion.
Much of the problem for the book group was the translation, or at least the possibility that the translation might be bad made it hard to judge whether the book itself was any good or not. The writing was certainly awkward, with badly constructed sentences and bizarre images (although some of the bizarre images I liked). But there were other problems — a main character who can be intensely unlikeable, a plot that floundered at times, and a resolution that was too predictable.
To say something about the book itself, it’s set in Barcelona and tells the story of Petra Delicado, an inspector who has been working in the documentation department and who gets called upon unexpectedly to investigate a rape case. She is assigned to work with Fermin Garzon, a rather plodding, obedient type who is close to retirement. The two have to figure out not only how to run an investigation, something Petra at least has little experience with, but also how to deal with each other. There is tension between the two of them from the very beginning; Petra isn’t used to being in charge and has to figure out how to exert authority in a world that grants it to women only grudgingly, and Fermin has to figure out how to respond to a boss who knows less about investigating than he does. Plus Fermin has some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women that Petra does not like.
The two do a pretty bad job of investigating, or at least that’s what members of the press accuse them of. They have no good leads for a very long time and spend a surprisingly long period floundering about desperately looking for some kind of breakthrough. I’m not entirely convinced that they are bad investigators, though, or at least that they are bad as people think they are. They do make some mistakes, but they are rookies, after all. But even more so, I wonder whether this portrayal of an investigation isn’t more realistic than investigations often are in novels. What do investigators do when there are no clues? When no clues appear for a very long time? When every trail they follow leads them nowhere? The press accuses them of failing in their job, but I wonder whether other, more experienced investigators would have been able to do it better. In novels, investigators struggle and take time to solve their cases, but I wonder whether they struggle a lot less and take a lot less time than real-life investigators do.
We also talked in my book group about how often Petra and Fermin take breaks from their work and how often they are to be found in restaurants or bars, rather than working on the investigation. This is probably one of their most serious mistakes, but I have to say, I’m entirely in sympathy with their commitment to eating well and resting up. This is illogical of me, I suppose, since with a rapist on the loose, they really do need to be in a hurry. And yet I do get tired of detectives who never seem to sleep and who skip meals all the time and who basically act like their non-working lives don’t matter in the least. Petra has just bought a new house, and she’s trying to settle into it, and I sympathize with her occasional feelings of resentment at a job that’s pulling her away from it.
So these elements I liked, and I also liked Petra’s vocal feminism and the struggles she goes through to figure out how to establish and maintain power, and also how to use that power effectively without abusing it (which she fails at spectacularly a time or two). But at the same time, the narrative did get dull now and then and Petra’s character remains a bit elusive. There was some spark, something lively, missing from the book. And the translation was a problem.
That’s the best I can do with this book, it seems. For other thoughts, you can read Emily’s post.