There is nothing more compelling for a mystery/crime fiction fan like me than a smart but flawed crime fighter. Sherlock Holmes has his cocaine, Philip Marlowe has his booze, Lisbeth Salander has her, well, take your pick. By adding Chief Inspector Max Camara of Spain's Cuerpa Nacional de Policia to this prestigious community, author Jason Webster dares tread on the hallowed ground of masters at characterization. And, by virtue of this fine debut, both he and Max belong there.
First of all, Max, born and raised in a country pretty much defined by bullfighting, intensely dislikes the national sport. This really wouldn't be all that odd for anybody who has adopted 21st Century political correctness. But Max is a cop, a member of an elite national corps of officers that deals with major crimes (e.g. murder) in Spain's biggest cities. It might stand to reason that this thirty-something cop has become inured to the type of violence and bloodshed seen in a bull ring. If anything, Max seems more repulsed by bullfighting than by the human-on-human violence of the brutal murder he is called upon to solve. What's more, Max's objection to bullfighting is not ideological. So when Webster thrusts him into the center of one of the most important bullfights of the season, it is clear that there is more to Max than meets the eye. Good. Add "complicated" to his characteristics.
Of course, Max is a loner with serious relationship and commitment issues. Even though he and lady friend Almudena are trying to conceive - unsuccessfully so far - it appears their relationship is closer to fizzling out. She insists on separate apartments. He doesn't push for cohabitation. They barely speak. And Max remains ambiguous at best over the prospect of being a father. To further complicate matters, the beautiful pro-bullfighting journalist, Alicia Beneyto, presents a potentially dangerous distraction, both personally and professionally.
Finally there is the thing with marijuana. Despite it being illegal, Max enjoys the occasional joint. Unlike his on-again, off-again tobacco cigarette habit, his marijuana use is never seriously in jeopardy. Of course privately he half-heartedly debates whether using it is wise, but in the end we know it is the one thing that cements his ties to his grandfather. The old anarchist, as Max refers to him, grows the stuff on the patio of his rural apartment. And Max makes frequent trips to replenish his stash and bond with his only living relative.
Beyond Max's sharply drawn character, Webster weaves a finely intricate mystery with political intrigue, social commentary, and sufficient cultural background for those of us unfamiliar with Spain's complex relationship with bullfighting. There are many beautiful and symbolically illustrative passages such as one in which he describes a fly's looping flight pattern. "It was odd: neither food, nor water, nor searching for other flies appeared to be on its mind, preferring instead to remain trapped in a world of its own making." The metaphor is not lost on Max as it might apply, not only to himself, but to the world in general.
Despite a couple minute points off for drawing Max too like other fictional crime fighters, Webster's protagonist is strong enough and the narrative well-crafted enough to stand this series debut in good stead among its peers. I really can't wait to read more about Max and Spain.
This review is from the November 3, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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