carvalho, barcelona’s private eye

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“We private investigators are barometers of public morality, Biscuter. I tell you, this society is rotten. It believes in nothing.”
“Yes, boss.”
Biscuter agreed with Carvalho, not only because he guessed that the latter was drunk, but also because he was always ready to confirm the disastrous state of affairs.
“Three months without having earned a peseta. No husband looking for his spouse. No father in search of his daughter. No horny old goat wanting proof of his wife’s faithlessness.”

from: Southern Seas
(my translation)

The Good Life in Barcelona

Carvalho has got a past. He was a member of the communist party during the Franco age, was betrayed by his comrades and woke up in prison. Later on he lived in USA and became involved with the CIA – he was a CIA agent. Finally he returned to Spain, to Barcelona, and started his business as a private eye.

He is a successful investigator, however, he’s also a man of independent means – at least partly. Just think of his inherited villa in Vallvidrera, a well-established part of town. His investigations not only touch the criminal background of whatever task he deals with, but also the Spanish society of all colors. Carvalho watches and draws conclusions. He experienced quite a lot of historical developments that he knows that all that glitters is not gold.

I thought about the story of Carvalho’s role. It seems to be well known that Andrea Camilleri created his protagonist Salvo Montalbano, a police inspector in Sicily, after Pepe Carvalho, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s private eye in Barcelona, because he admired the style of the Carvalho novels. When comparing both series it is obvious that both protagonists are not only concerned with crime and criminals, but also take note of the social developments in their countries with sharp eyes.

While Sicily’s Montalbano, a police inspector, is active until nowadays Barcelona’s Carvalho is a child mainly of the 70s, 80s … up to the 90s. Also Carvalho started as a revolutionist, working against the establishment, he later became part of. Nevertheless the police never became his friend.

Because of his work as a private eye Carvalho is called to action from private parties like wives looking for their husbands, companies concerned about an employee, clubs suspecting foul play in financial affairs etc. Sooner or later, however, there is a murder … and sometimes corpses pile up. The police gets involved and is not happy about Carvalho. Nor is Carvalho pleased with the police always having in mind his years in prison – and policemen surviving the Franco age and still working.

Here we are: the novels start in the 70s. Spain was for long years controlled by Franco, General Francisco Franco, El Caudillo de España, the absolute ruler – as we all know. Only 1975 when Franco died a slow democratization started while at the same time people just started to live their lives, some of them unbounded by tradition, religion – somewhat like sex and drugs and rock’n’roll …

The novels start at this time – and I dare say that the best ones are set in the 70s and beginning of the 80s. (I admit I never read the 1st novel …) These early novels always present a story of life peppered with crime and murder as well as a detailed recording of Carvalho’s daily activities. I learnt to fall in love for the novels when imagining Barcelona and its people at that time of change while simultaneously still powerful forces in the background tried to stop the new world from increasing the speed … and in the thick fit is Carvalho.

The novels are not fast-paced, but you may enjoy all the life Barcelona presents. It is not only the life of a big city, but also a society after the Franco age who tries to free itself, starts living and tends to overshoot. This runs through all social classes. In general the ruling class, the well-off people do not seem to have changed although the political background changed. Be sure that more sex and drugs are playing a role and that the offspring more likely spends money than trees to earn money resp. secure the family fortune. Money rules Barcelona, Spain and the rest of the world. Also the working class has to define itself new, from the scratch, to get their share of power. On all social levels past and future crash and try to mix …

Carvalho is often asked for help by rich people – let me call them simply rich. Of course they are able to pay him. During his investigations he often ends up in the streets where the victims somehow also managed to end up. Or where they found their sexual objects. Or where they thought they would find some sort of absolution whatever they may have done. Carvalho seems at home everywhere and familiar with any ideas of living a life. He is predestined for untangling any mess of the after-Franco era.

Carvalho has got an assistent, Biscuter, who cares for administrative duties as well as his boss’ culinary well-being. They met in prison years ago. In the evenings Carvalho cooks with passion and likes to eat and drink with his friend and neighbor Fuster as well as with his mistress Charo, a prostitute. He also likes to burn his extensive library, book by book in his fireplace.

It’s important to mention the role of food in the novels. Carvalho is a gourmet as well as a gourmand. He indulges in traditional Spanish food prepared in traditional ways. Some delicacies of France are always welcome – als extraordinary food from other regions. Next to his passion for food (and cooking!) is his passion for sex. Sex looms large in the novels – not only concerning Carvalho, but also the rest of the society.

As I stated it’s a pleasure to read the novels … although the later novels are filled with lots of more philosophical discussion and insights – sometimes too much for me. At the beginning of the series there are Carvalho’s insights as well as the insights of his companions or even his clients and opponents well woven into the action. Later it seems to dominate the novels …

Nevertheless start reading Carvalho’s adventures!

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a faint cold fear thrills through my veins ... william shakespeare