Book Review: Black Sun Rising by Matthew Carr
By Doreen SheridanJune 4, 2020
Matthew Carr has written another historical thriller that is as action-packed as it is thought-provoking! Centered, as with his debut novel The Devils Of Cardona, on his beloved Spain, Black Sun Rising examines the events leading up to and around the riots of the Tragic Week of 1909, deftly weaving a fictional murder mystery involving eugenics and the British into the factual proceedings. Perhaps more saliently to the discerning reader, it underscores the lessons of an important chapter of Iberian history for global readers in the present day, all while telling a ripping good yarn.
Irishman Harry Lawton is a private detective who feels himself embarking on a downward spiral. Outwardly, everything seems well enough. Once a constable in the London police force, and before that a soldier for the English in the Boer War, he now takes on investigations for a law firm—respectable, if not distinguished work. When an old acquaintance offers him a lucrative new assignment in Spain, he has little hesitation in accepting, even as he shies away from discussing the illness that has forced him to resign other, more stable positions:
[H]e felt the familiar sharp pain in his head and he smelled the faint whiff of smoke. He knew immediately that there was no fire. He dropped the book and rushed over to the cupboard where he kept his medicines. He broke a vial of amyl nitrate into a cloth and pressed it against his nose and mouth. Immediately his head swelled up like a balloon as he tried to fill his mind with images of strength, youth, and vigor. He saw himself as a boy, climbing trees in Donegal. He heard the roar of the spectators from his fairground fights. He saw Corporal Lawton, First Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, running down Spion Kop with a soldier on his back and bullets whining past him. He saw Constable Harry Lawton sprinting through the streets of Limehouse at night. And then his hands began to tremble and the band around his head tightened once again. He dropped onto all fours and rammed the bit between his teeth, as the flame spread through him like the Holy Ghost descending, and he was no longer able to imagine anything at all.
Illness notwithstanding, Lawton is uniquely suited to investigating this case, for along with his military and police background, his Chilean mother ensured his fluency in the Spanish language. His latest assignment involves Dr. Randolph Foulkes, a noted scientist and explorer who tragically died in the recent bombing of a Barcelona cafe. His widow hires Lawton to do two things: travel to Spain to identify the body, and discover the identity of a woman Foulkes had written a large check to just before dying.
Lawton arrives in Barcelona to find a city teetering on the brink of insurrection as anarchists and radical republicans form an uneasy political alliance against the entrenched conservative and liberal parties that treat Catalonian nationalism like a disease. Rumors of a monster leaving savaged corpses drained of blood all over the city are only adding fuel to the fires of anti-government and anti-church hysteria. Lawton soon discovers that this “beast of the Ramblas” is somehow connected to Dr. Foulkes’ demise, as is a touring mesmerist and a society of explorers with esoteric designs. Teaming up with local reporter Bernat Mata as well as with anarchist schoolteacher Esperanza Claramunt, Lawton must unravel the mystery of Dr. Foulkes’ final days even as the city around him comes undone.
1909 Barcelona is a fascinating setting for a detective thriller, as Lawton has to dodge not only forces that will happily kill him to stop him from getting to the truth but also a mass chaos that could just as easily cost him his life as buildings burn and troops fire on civilians. Mr. Carr expertly folds the events that led up to the unrest into his narrative, inserting details at once bizarre and chilling, all the more so for being true:
It was clear that the protests had unleashed a rage and hatred that went beyond the opposition to the war in Morocco. [T]he strike committee had lost control of the strike. Without any clear political goals, the masses had given themselves over to purposeless destruction, superstition, and outrage. At the convent of the Caputxins the mob had disinterred the bodies of long-dead nuns to see if they had been tortured and murdered. At the Dominican monastery he had watched a crowd search in vain for a tunnel where the monks supposedly walked beneath the city to engage in orgies with the Conceptionist sister.
Isolated from the rest of the country and devoid of government, Barcelona had become a city where nothing could be proven and anything could be believed, where the security forces had abandoned the streets to the mob.
As with Mr. Carr’s first novel, the death quotient is fairly high, though at least this time I was prepared to have the characters I was rooting for meet their untimely ends. I was actually astonished that more of the characters I had grown attached to survived than otherwise! (I may still be bitter about some of the deaths in The Devils Of Cardona.) Lawton’s fate is also satisfying, fitting for a complex hero whose unique background makes him the perfect lens through which to view the tumultuous, sometimes chilling, always thought-provoking proceedings.