World crime fiction #4

The retirement project to read one crime novel set in every country listed in The Times atlas of the world.


Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo.

The plot: A policeman investigating how a body came to be dumped alongside the river Riachuelo becomes the target of an Army major who runs a military execution squad.

Where and when: the book is set in Buenos Aires during the Junta’s “war against subversives”. It was a time when thousands of people ‘disappeared’ because they opposed the military’s reign of terror.

The detectives: Superintendent ‘Perro’ (the Dog) Lascano. A widower, Lascano seems to be a man alone; an honest detective trying to do his job in a world of cops and judges who have been intimidated and corrupted by the dictatorship.

Sense of Place: The book is sprinkled with the names of Buenos Aires’ boulevards, monuments and grand buildings. Mallo (a former anti-Junta activist who was pursued by the dictatorship), however, is sparing with physical descriptions of the city. We are told the Riachuelo is a stinking, stagnant river; perhaps a metaphor for the whole city, a place of evil where things are breaking down literally and figuratively. I couldn’t form a mental picture of what the city looks like, but I got a strong sense of what it must feel like to live in a place where soldiers cruise the streets in their olive-green trucks and Falcon cars, dragging away people to be interrogated (and usually murdered) in secret locations around the city; and where the background sound of the city is the rattle of distant machine-guns. Perhaps tellingly, one descriptive passage focuses on the issue of ‘the disappeared.’ “A group of mothers-of-the-disappeared are congregated in Playa de Mayo, doing circuits around the pyramid-shaped monument, wearing white handkerchiefs on their heads.” The action, however, is very much conducted indoors, and inside the heads of the protagonists.

Worth reading? Yes, for an example of a good man swimming against the tide of evil. But don’t expect a neat and happy ending.


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