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 As Salgado was interviewing this Dr Omar his anger superseded good judgment and professionalism and he beat the scumbag within an inch of his slimy life.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.
This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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