Pepe Carvalho, a macho "ex-cop ex-Marxist" who once worked in Amsterdam for the CIA, is now a middle-aged private detective. This disillusioned maverick anti-hero used to love literature. Now he reads people, and uses one of his books to light the fire to cook a gourmet meal for Charo, his prostitute girl friend.
Paid to confirm the identity of a drowned man with a most unusual tattoo, Pepe follows a lead to Amsterdam, where he gets beaten up and tossed in a canal. Along the way, he drinks copious quantities of beer and liquor, eats at a fondly remembered Balinese restaurant in the Dutch capital, and despises the food he is obliged to order in inferior restaurants while pursuing leads.
The case proves even more sordid than expected; upon learning the details, he is shaken to the core. Fortunately for the gourmet detective, "the smell of frying tomatoes and onions" and the sight of a "steaming pot of mussels" makes life livable again.
Pepe is tough almost to the point of caricature. The "strange cinema he carrie[s] inside his head" portrays scenes of sex and violence, and in one real-life scene, he takes pleasure in a fight. A heavy drinker in a boozing culture, he can read stages of drunkenness in his informants and associates.
Although many of the characters the detective encounters are unappealing, all are beautifully rendered. The language in this unusual book is rich and vivid. Its evocative sensory descriptions locate the reader in the centre of bygone Barcelona, awash in food, alcohol, cigars, illegal drugs, and prostitutes. Amsterdam too is portrayed with clarity, as are the contrasts between northern and southern Barcelona beaches, and French versus Spanish coastlines when seen from the air.
In search of leads, Pepe interviews a tattoo artist, who explains that in the past, only "sailors and crooks" wanted tattoos. Now, sailors "aren't what they used to be," and crooks are getting too smart to mark their bodies with identifiable art. Only one good tattooist remains in Barcelona, he opines, and while there are still a few artist in Tangiers and elsewhere in Morocco, Hamburg and Rotterdam no longer live up to their pre-war reputations as the best places to get tattoos.
We get a powerful sense of the society and the era through vivid and darkly humorous descriptions and comments. About Charo, Pepe cynically observes that "in passionate solidarity mode," she becomes "a monument to class consciousness." In an effort to clamp down on illegal activity, the police close "all the brothels except the really expensive ones." Irritated by one young man's "self-satisfied grin of a jumped-up mafioso," the street-tough Pepe takes pleasure in the chance to clean his clock.
The reader senses the author's philosophy through the inner musings of Pepe Carvalho. who feels that his "journey between childhood and old age is a personal, non-transferable destiny" to be lived by him and him alone, and everybody else can "go and get stuffed." He looks back on the veterans of the Spanish Legion, "full of scorn and literature, setting off between the wars" on another armed adventure that "would never happen today," since people have now discovered "they can only do what's possible."
Lunching with two strangers from whom he hopes to glean information, the detective notices how one of them is "sacrificing an absent friend in order to keep in with the one sitting next to him." Pepe is soon bored with the men, finding their blind and belligerent expressions of nationalism stupid and unappealing.
In the era of women's liberation, the detective wearily observes the "geisha-like submission so typical of those liberated young middle-class women" as they invest their "pre-matrimonial enthusiasm" in "consolation prizes for unfulfilled ambitions." Cynically, he comments on the replacement of the "ancestral tradition of setting up a girl who had brought shame to her family with a corner shop" by its modernized version: "leasing a boutique for unhappily married women suffering from existential angst."
In the "green watery landscape" of the Netherlands, Pepe Carvalho observes the foreign workers "from a whole alphabet of poor European countries" where life is hard. He notices that the Turks, "fugitives from a dry country," have "lost their initial boisterousness and gradually accepted the convention of silence imposed by this part of Europe, where everything looked as though it were drawn with a ruler." Yet however civilized this northern nation may seem, Amsterdam is home to a secret and violent CIA organization awash with connections from Indonesia to Colombia.
Feeling "a rush of blind anger" towards both his own countrymen and the "phlegmatic Dutch cycling past," Pepe Carvalho is depressed by the thought that "Some are born to make history, others to suffer it." Luckily his body, which does not betray him, is at that moment walking him towards a fine restaurant called the House of Lords, where he will console himself with an excellent meal.
Born in a seedy Barcelona barrio as the Spanish Civil War ended, Manuel Vazquez Montalban was a poet and essayist as well as a novelist. By the time he died in 2003 at the age of 64, his 22 novels had appeared in 24 languages. His detective Pepe Carvalho lives on.