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Inspector Hector Salgado is a transplanted Argentine living in Barcelona. While working on human trafficking case, Salgado's violent temper got the best of him and he beat a suspect within an inch of his life. Ordered on probation, he fled to Argentina to cool off for a few months.
Now he's back in Barcelona and is eager for another big case. But his boss has other plans. He assigns Salgado to a routine accidental death: a college student fell from a balcony in one of Barcelona's ritzier neighborhoods. As Salgado begins to piece together the life and world of the victim, he realizes that his death was not all that simple: his teenage friends are either overly paranoid or deceptively calm, and drugs might be involved. Hector begins to follow a trail that will lead him deep into the underbelly of Barcelona's high society where he'll come face-to-face with dangerous criminals, long-buried secrets, and, of course, his own past. But Hector thrives on pressure, and he lives for this kind of case - dark, violent, and seemingly unsolvable.
Gripping, sophisticated, and wickedly entertaining, The Summer of Dead Toys introduces a charismatic new detective and announces Antonio Hill as a new master of the crime thriller.
It's been a long time since I thought of Iris or the summer she died. I suppose I tried to forget it all, in the same way I overcame nightmares and childhood fears. And now, when I want to remember her, all that comes to mind is the last day, as if these images have erased all the previous ones. I close my eyes and bring myself to that big old house, this dormitory of deserted beds awaiting the arrival of the next group of children. I'm six years old, I'm at camp and I can't sleep because I'm scared. No, I lie. That very early morning I behaved like a brave boy: I disobeyed my uncle's rules and faced the darkness just to see Iris. But I found her drowned, floating in the pool, surrounded by a cortège of dead dolls.
He turned off the alarm clock at the first buzz. Eight a.m. Although he'd been awake for hours a sudden heaviness overcame his limbs and he had to force himself to get out of bed and go to the shower. The stream of water cleared his sluggishness and along with it some of the effects of jet lag. He had arrived only hours before, after an interminable Buenos AiresBarcelona flight which was prolonged further in the Lost Luggage office at the airport. The assistant, who had definitely been one of those sadistic British schoolmistresses in a previous life, consumed his last shred of patience, looking at him as if the suitcase were a being with free will and had opted to trade in this owner for one less moody-looking.
He dried himself vigorously and noticed with annoyance that sweat was already appearing on his brow: that was summer in Barcelona. Humid and sticky as a melted ice-cream. With the towel wrapped round his waist he looked at himself in the mirror. He should shave. Fuck it. He went back to the bedroom and rummaged in the half-empty wardrobe for some underwear. Luckily the clothes in the lost suitcase were winter ones, so he had no problems finding a short-sleeved shirt and trousers. Barefoot, he sat on the bed. He took a deep breath. The long journey was taking its toll and he was tempted to lie back down, close his eyes and forget about the meeting he had at ten o'clock sharp, although deep down he knew he was incapable of doing so. Héctor Salgado never missed a meeting. Even if it might be with his executioner, he said to himself and smiled ironically.
His right hand searched for his mobile phone on the nightstand. Very little battery life remained and he remembered that the charger was in the damn suitcase. The day before he'd felt too wrecked to speak to anyone. He looked up Ruth's number in the phonebook and stayed looking at the screen for a few seconds before pressing the green button. He always called her on her mobile, surely in an attempt to ignore the fact that she had another landline. Another house. Another partner. Her voice, somewhat hoarse, just awake, whispered in his ear:
"Héctor . . ."
"Did I wake you?"
"No . . . Well, a bit." He heard a stifled laugh in the background.
"But I had to get up anyway. When did you get back?"
"Sorry. I arrived yesterday morning, but those idiots lost my bag and I was in the airport for half the day. My mobile is about to run out of battery. I just wanted you to know that I'd arrived safely."
Suddenly he felt stupid. Like a child talking too much. "How was the flight?"
"Calm," he lied. "Listen, is Guillermo asleep?"
"Your accent always changes when you come back from Buenos Aires. Guillermo's not here, didn't I tell you? He's spending a few days at the beach, at a friend's house. But I'm sure he'll be sleeping at this time," she added immediately.
"Yeah." A pause; lately their conversations stalled continually.
Excerpted from The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill. Copyright © 2013 by Antonio Hill. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Like the titillating glimmer in the eye of a handsome stranger, a book that makes me laugh on its first page promises pleasures untold. I've been known to be a sucker for both. What's more I've also been known to swoon over well crafted, flawed, quirky or wicked-smart protagonists. And Antonio Hill's Inspector Hector Salgado - in The Summer of Dead Toys - is all of these rolled into one.
That he's handsome is something I'm taking on faith in the one woman he beds, a woman whom maybe he shouldn't have. And the titillating glimmer? It comes from depth of character. His is born of sadness over a marriage broken up because well, he's not entirely certain why his wife Ruth left him. She's got custody of his son Guillermo and Hector grieves this loss perhaps more than the shattered marriage. This is one of many life events that have humbled him; made him able, if not to laugh at himself, to at least not take himself too seriously.
On the other hand he takes his job, as a Barcelona police homicide detective, very seriously. Maybe too seriously. Or not enough, depending on one's point of view. Which explains why the transplanted Argentine has just come back to work after a mandatory time out. It seems he lost it while interviewing a suspect, a Dr. Omar, in a sex trafficking ring. A young Nigerian girl - a child, really - who had been brought illegally into Spain, fatally mutilated herself rather than become a sex slave. As Salgado was interviewing this Dr Omar his anger superseded good judgment and professionalism and he beat the scumbag within an inch of his slimy life. Although everyone in the department, especially Salgado's boss Superintendent Savall, sympathized, it was determined that he still needed time to reflect on his anger management skills. So now he's back to work but must bare his soul to a department shrink. I needn't add that the thing with the shrink, who Salgado misjudges to be just a little older than Guillermo, isn't going to work out well.
So now Saldago's back at work and Savall puts him on an open-and-shut case. A young man, Marc Castells Vidal, scion of a well-connected family, got drunk while celebrating San Juan and took a fatal fall from his bedroom window. No foul play was suspected but the boy's mother insists they, at least, go though the motions of an investigation. From all appearances this is a way to keep Salgado occupied while his former partner Sgt. Martina Andreu proceeds with the Nigerian sex slave case.
About that. Of course Andreu keeps Salgado up to date on everything she learns because Omar has disappeared. Salgado may or may not be a person of interest in this disappearance despite his being in Argentina practically the whole time. Practically. What's worse is that little hints of voodoo curses keep popping up in Salgado's life. While he's not a believer (in any god) it does spook him. He and Andreu both know that is how these sex traffickers enslave the girls. They ply the children with promises, get them to surrender locks of their hair or clips of fingernails in a voodoo rite where they are bound to their "masters" on penalty of death. The girls are duped, avowed and trapped. (See Beyond the Book for a closer look at voodoo and how it has been misused.)
Meanwhile young Vidal's death begins to take on greater depth even as Salgado is cautioned against ruffling the delicate nerves of some of Barcelona's upper class. His life and the novel's tension ratchet up. Those voodoo threats - whatever their origin - now seem to have placed a noose around Salgado's neck. And who, if anyone, killed the Vidal boy? Each page has an almost audible click as the gears of the story wind tighter and tighter. And tighter. Until all - or nearly all - is exposed.
If all this hasn't piqued your curiosity, well, I don't know why. But just telling it this far makes me want to go back and read the book all over again. Yup. It's that good.
Reviewed by Donna Chavez
June 13, 2013 headline in The Daily Mail: "Six arrested over voodoo prostitution ring in Nigeria after gang branded women with irons then forced them to sell sex."
It appears that Antonio Hill's novel The Summer of Dead Toys could not be more timely in its depiction of sex traffickers in Spain preying on young Nigerian girls. Young girls, virtually children, are lured with promises of proper jobs as nannies, au pairs, and maids to work for wealthy European families. They come from hardscrabble existences, both from cities and rural areas, where money and education are scarce. They come from places where the belief in voodoo is as devout as it is common. They participate in "voodoo ceremonies" in which they promise to repay their travel debt, and if they don't, they are told the oath they took will kill them. This is how the girls become trapped; not with chains or bars but with the misuse of voodoo.
But voodoo is not about threatening or torturing or killing. Voodoo originated in Benin, Nigeria's neighbor to the west, and Benin-based voodoo priest Dah Dangbénon asserts that it is the completely benign worship of nature as a force for good. The religion, he says, has been unjustly demonized by Westerners and Christianity and has been corrupted in places such as Hollywood. He says: "Voodoo is not about using magic spells to curse your enemies. If you choose to manipulate nature to harm your neighbour, it's not voodoo that harms your neighbour, it is you."
Actually, it seems that it's not voodoo that is to blame for the curses that are conjured in order to harm, kill or enslave people but Juju. According to africaw.com: "Juju comes from the traditional African religion popularly known as voodoo. Juju practitioners in the traditional African religion are extremists just like the terrorists in Islam although their modes of operation are quite different. The terrorists in Islam attack physically while in Juju the mode of operation is spiritually. Juju includes blood money and spiritual attacks."
Juju refers specifically to objects used in conjunction with spells or curses, and like any practice or belief it can be manipulated to create power over people. The misuse of juju creates a psychological fear - personal objects such as hair or fingernails are combined with a promise that has repercussions if not kept.
Indeed, published news features recount the horrors young girls endure at the hands of traffickers. The girls are virtually illiterate and from families struggling to put food on the table but who are fervent juju devotees, whose faith has been turned against them in solemn vows to repay exorbitant travel expenses. Earlier this year a woman that had finally escaped her captors described a ceremony in which she "swore that if I refused to pay, the oath [I took] will kill me." Because of the lies her captors told her, in addition to the years-long ordeal just to return even poorer than before, her faith is shaken. The avowed deadly reprisal lurks even yet.
In an effort to stem, and ultimately eliminate, this international problem, the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP) was formed in Nigeria in August 2003. According to its website, "The Agency which is the creation of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, 2003 is the Federal Government of Nigeria's response to addressing the scourge of trafficking in persons in Nigeria and its attendant human abuses in its entire ramification."
The agency has a huge task that encompasses everything from prevention of trafficking to international coordination of efforts to crack down on it. It also attempts to ensure that those who have been trafficked and enslaved are treated as victims and not criminals. Not an easy job as the traffickers do not bother with passports or other legal papers. If a young woman is arrested in a foreign country she is subject to that country's deportation laws and may languish in prison for years before being sent back to Nigeria.
Little wonder that Hill's Inspector Hector Salgado does not suffer human traffickers.
top photo: Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, Benin; bottom photo: An 1873 Victorian illustration of a "Ju-ju house" on the Bight of Benin showing fetishised skulls and bones.
By Donna Chavez
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