Catalan writer Marc Pastor’s crime novel Barcelona Shadows, now translated into English, is a grisly gothic story set not in Eastern Europe or not-so-merry-olde England but anarchist-haunted, war-drained, superstitious Barcelona just prior to World War I.
Gruesome and even macabre, Barcelona Shadows is a fictionalized account of the notorious real-life career of Enriqueta Martí, a serial child-killer and pimp, and a kind of witch doctor who prostituted small children and used the bodies of others for supposedly medical concoctions. Or, according to some, she may have been only a scapegoat who never killed or kidnapped any children at all.
In Barcelona Shadows Martí is a monster worthy of an over-the-top 1950s horror movie treatment. A hardboiled but hard-luck police detective named Moisès Corvo and his partner are fruitlessly investigating a string of disappearances of prostitutes’ children, crimes the brass would rather sweep under the rug, when a henchman of Martí’s carelessly snatches the child of a respected middle-class family, and after a climactic Hitchcockian scene in a theater, the trail gets very warm. But Corvo is now in danger himself.
Pastor’s humble but effective storytelling innovation is to have Death narrate the story. An omniscient commentator, he also makes surprising personal appearances at the perimeter of the saga, even joining a witness for dinner to find out (and thereby let us know) more about the villain’s background. It sounds gimmicky, but in Pastor’s able hands (neatly translated by Mara Faye Lethem) it adds a fateful dimension.
Pastor is also skilled at creating brief, crisp scenes that get into the minds not only of his detective but of two captive little girls, and other characters as well. He’s grittily insightful into the psychology of a city under stress, where
lively conversations crop up everywhere, always on the same subject: the vampire. And the conclusions don’t vary much from conversation to conversation: that the police are incompetent, that the new mayor is turning a blind eye, that the government in Madrid has left us in the hands of God, that all this comes out of the war with the Moors, which has only ever brought us misfortune. If one stops to study the attitude of the masses individually, obviously, signs of paranoia crop up. The children play, and no adult that isn’t their mother stops to muss their hair or stroke their faces, or even return the ball to them when it goes out of bounds.
Martí herself, though we get many good looks at her, remains mostly a mystery. But Pastor’s dark, fast-moving tale gripped me all the way through to Death’s final appearance at the end. And after all, he is much less mysterious than the monstrous among us – the paranoia that can rot whole societies from within, as much as the individual psychotics, murderers, and cannibals we shudder at.