detective fiction

detective fiction
   Spain had no significant indigenous tradition of detective fiction until the 1970s. Though stories of crime were popular in the nineteenth century, these usually appealed to sensationalism, and lacked the key elements of the detective novel. There is no equivalent of the classic British model represented by Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant amateur who solves difficult cases with an elegance which makes the police appear slowwitted. Nor is there any direct impact in the 1930s and 1940s of the American "hard-boiled" genre, in which the private eye is the lone defender of integrity in a society seen as overwhelmingly impersonal and corrupt.
   The censorship practised during the Franco regime was inimical to both these models. Cynicism about the inherent benevolence of the state, or the portrayal of large-scale crime or corruption were officially discouraged, and there was no question of showing the police as incapable of clearing up cases. Nevertheless, several forces for change were at work. One was the influence, beginning in the 1950s, of Italian neo-realist cinema, with its unsentimental portrayal of human behaviour. American detective novels like those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were turned into films in the 1940s and 1950s, which became something of a cult among French intellectuals, who in turn influenced a younger generation of writers in Spain.
   Given the climate of censorship, it was somewhat less risky to write detective fiction on the British model, with its predominant emphasis on problemsolving, and this inspired some of the earliest attempts in Spain. In 1953, Francisco García Pavón won a prize for a short story, the protagonist of which was a rural detective, nicknamed Plinio. García Pavón later expanded the idea into a series of novels published between 1965 and 1975. Prior to this, Rafael Tasis had published in Catalan his Superintendent Vilagut trilogy, La Bíblia valenciana (The Valencian Bible) (1955), És hora de plegar (Time to Pack It In) (1956), and Un aim al Paral·lel (Murder on the Parallel) (1960). There were also early examples of American-style fiction by Manuel de Pedrolo, who had not only translated Chandler, Hammett and other authors of the 1930s, but had worked as a private detective, and had direct experience of the underbelly of Barcelona society. In 1954, he published Es vessa una sang fàcil (Easy Blood is Spilt), and L'inspector fa tard (The Inspector is Late).
   When censorship was relaxed after 1975, there was a receptive readership for translations of detective fiction in English, and new Spanish writing in the genre often acknowledged the influence of American novels and films. For example, the Gálvez novels of Jorge Martínez Reverte contain references to Chandler and to Robert Mitchum, who played the private eye Philip Marlowe in a film version of Chandler's The Big Sleep. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Spanish detective novels were derivative, for the political and cultural situation after 1975 had some special characteristics. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán was one of several writers of detective novels who began their careers as journalists in the 1960s, thereby acquiring an informed and critical view of the workings of society. Julio Gálvez, for example, the protagonist of novels by Jorge Martínez Reverte, is not strictly a detective but an investigative reporter. The novels in which he appears, though written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, contain scarcely-veiled references to corruption cases and political events during the Franco period. The Serpico property investment company in Demasiado para Gálvez (Too Much for Gálvez) (1979) recalls the real-life Sofico, which collapsed in 1974, causing thousands of investors to lose their savings. Gálvez en Euskadi (Gálvez in Euskadi) shows the protagonist undergoing a learning process when his assignment forces him to get to know ETA from the inside.
   This political dimension to the post-Franco detective novel finds one of its most characteristic expressions in the work of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. As a left-wing activist, he had looked forward to a radical change in the structure of Spanish society following the disappearance of the dictatorship. His disillusionment with the materialism of post-Franco society is portrayed through the cynical detachment of his protagonist, the Galician detective, Pepe Carvalho. A typical example is the sardonic analysis of the internal tensions of the Communist Party in Asesinato en el Comité Central (Murder in the Central Committee) (1981) by Carvalho, here portrayed as an exmember of the party, which in turn reflects Vázquez Montalbán's own ambivalent relationship with the Catalan Communist Party. Vázquez Montalbán and Eduardo Mendoza have not only made distinguished contributions to the boom in the detective novel, but have developed the possibilities of the genre in original ways. Both have wide literary experience, which enables them to engage in self-conscious and often humorous reflection on the activity of writing. Vázquez Montalbán's Los mares del sur (South Seas) (1979) contains a scene in which Carvalho blunders into a university seminar on the thriller, and in another part of the novel, there is an encounter with a living literary critic, Sergio Beser. Two of Mendoza's novels, El misterio de la cripta embrujada (The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt) (1979) and El laberinto de las aceitunas (The Labyrinth of Olives) (1982), are constructed as deliberate parodies of the detective genre. The protagonist is an inmate of an asylum, who is released from time to time, to help the police solve cases that they cannot clear up. The fact that once he has exhausted his usefulness he is returned to captivity without a word of thanks is the kind of cynical comment on contemporary society which has become one of the distinctive features of the detective novel in Spain.
   See also: Francoist culture; kiosk literature; novel; publishing; readership
   Further reading
   - Hart, P. (1987a) The Spanish Sleuth: The Detective in Spanish Fiction, London and Toronto: The Associated University Press (the standard study in English).
   —— (1987b), "An Introduction to the Spanish Sleuth", Monographic Review/Revista Monográfica 3, 2: 163–181 (a compact and clear summary of the previous study).
   - Rix. R. (ed.) (1992) Thrillers in the Transition: Novela negra and political change in Spain, Leeds: Trinity and All Saints" College (a very useful collection of papers on different aspects of the genre).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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