Off Side by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán is the latest of the Pepe Carvalho detective novels to be released in the United States (available July 17, 2012).
When I learned that fictional Barcelona-based private detective Pepe Carvalho was an inspiration for the Salvo Montalbano series by Italian author Andrea Camilleri, I knew I had to investigate him. Not only does the world-weary, food-loving Montalbano share basic character traits with Carvalho, even his name pays homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Carvalho’s creator.
Yet beyond the superficial similarities, the characters are different and Carvalho is the darker of the two. He’s largely disconnected from all but the basic human needs. Thus, he can—and does—opine at great length about the proper way to cook rice, but the proper way to treat other people is a concept that eludes him.
Montalbán died in 2003, but English translations of his Pepe Carvalho books are new to the United States and Off Side is the latest one to be released here. It takes place as Barcelona prepares to host the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, an interesting time for the city. Outlying and previously undesirable neighborhoods have been targeted for “urban renewal” and real estate is a suddenly hot commodity attracting investors and speculators. Those who stand to gain naturally see the development as progress, but Carvalho, like many locals, dreads the changes.
In the distance, the houses that had been demolished for the construction of the Olympic sports facilities look more like a set for a film about the bombing of Dresden. The new city would no longer feel like the city he knew, the city which had lived within the confines of Tibidabo to the north and Barceloneta and the sea to the south.
Yet the preparation for the Olympics is merely a backdrop for this PI story involving the city’s more abiding sports passion: soccer.
It starts with a threat sent to the most powerful football club in Barcelona: “The centre forward will be killed at dusk.” The player in question is Jack Mortimer, a superstar newly arrived from England. Carvalho is engaged to find out who made the threat and why.
At the same time, we as readers are engaged in following the fortunes of another center forward. Alberto Palacín, once a star, is now down on his luck after a serious injury and attempting to make a comeback in a third-tier local club representing an unfashionable district.
He was a good-looking sort, that he was. A bit bow-legged, and a tendency to lean forward, as if he was trying to sniff something, or see better, or simply as his way of warning that he was about to arrive. But there was no menace in his strong body. Rather, a sense of self-restraint, of an ability to keep his capacity for movement under control, to know his own weight and volume, like a man who knows his own character and destiny.
Jack Mortimer might be the marquee player the soccer fans cheer on game days, but Alberto Palacín is the man we’re rooting for. Living quietly in a shabby boarding house, he’s training hard for his return to the game and, in his spare time, hoping to find his runaway wife and the son she took with her when she left. His is a sad story, and it’s not the only one.
Like many fictional PIs, Carvalho inhabits a world of hard-luck cases including Charo, the prostitute who also happens to be his girlfriend, and the loyal snitch Bromide, the shoeshine who pines for the days of Franco’s Spain.
“We’re getting to the point where there won’t be any Spanish pimps left . . . We need another Franco, that’s what we need. I’d like to see Franco back on the scene, waving his sword around. You wouldn’t see these foreigners for dust. If people feel they need to go thieving, fair enough, go ahead. But they can stay at home and do it in their own countries, because Spaniards take lessons from nobody when it comes to crime.”
Montalbán, like his detective, was known as a gourmand, but he was no fan of sugarcoating. In Off Side, characters express their opinions bluntly, the language can be coarse, the behavior insensitive, and while there are some tender moments there’s little that you’d call uplifting.
To fully appreciate this book, it would help to have some knowledge of recent Spanish history and of Barcelona. You might also do well to know a little about soccer. Or you can simply immerse yourself in Montalbán’s vivid prose and take the knocks and bumps as they come. No one comes out of this story without a few bruises.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.
See coverage of more new releases in our Fresh Meat series.