Pepe Carvalho: a Spanish Hercule Poirot

(actualisé le ) by Ray

The Quintet of Buenos Aires [1] by Manuel Vasquez Montalban is a big, rather verbose, but all in all quite captivating plunge into the darker side of life in contemporary Argentina as we follow the investigations of an odd-ball but very distinctive detective from Barcelona named Pepe Carvalho, who is apparently about as well known in the Spanish-speaking world as Hercule Poirot is elsewhere.

He is fiftyish and as disillusioned and cynical as one could wish, but he is aware and even engaged politically, he is widely read (even though his favourite pastime is burning books!!), he is witty and resourceful and (still) very interested in people in general and in the opposite sex in particular, so he ends up by coming across as one of the best-rounded and most interesting central characters that I have encountered in the detective-novel genre.

Here he goes down south on a family mission to find a cousin who seems to have disappeared into the depths of Buenos Aires, and what he finds out there (in addition to the lost cousin) about the recent past of that vast and intriguing country - when 30,000 (!!) intellectuals, trade unionists and left-wing political activists "disappeared" after the military coup there in the seventies - and about its present - where the "disappearers" have been graciously pardoned in the name of facilitating the return to democracy - makes on the whole for rather top-grade reading.

Maradona, "disparus" and tango is how Pepe sums up on several occasions his impressions of that distant and mysterious country that is somehow so close to us, and although the main detection-story-line takes rather a back seat to the unravelling of Argentina’s social, political, historical and cultural background which Pepe starts to discover the minute he gets to Buenos Aires - or rather as soon as he starts going there, as the whole thing gets seriously underway, in a deceptively light-hearted way, during the plane trip there - it is all credible and well-paced, with a nonchalent, casual touch laced with the understatement and wit that seem to be Pepe’s trademarks.

And the copious bonus bits about cooking, gastronomy, philosophy, literature and poetry and the Argentinian way of life, their writers and their culture and their seemingly-endless language tics (well-documented in an excellent Appendix) definitely set this detective novel apart. A particularly well-written one, it hardly needs adding, as the prolific Vasques Montalban (1939-2003), author of some 120 books [2] including 20-odd in the Pepe Carvalhos series, was first and foremost a writer and a poet and an essayist in addition to being a rather superior kind of detective-story writer.


[1Le Quintette de Buenos Aires
Points Policier
494 p

[2of which 53 have been published in France