Review: Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

In 1976 Argentina’s Dirty War had begun and its environment of state-sponsored illegal arrests, torture, killing and forced disappearances provides a brutal backdrop for what would otherwise be a simple tale of a policeman investigating a murder. Superintendent Lascano is asked to follow up on a report of two bodies being found but when he arrives at the site there are three bodies. Two are of young people who were clearly killed by the Junta’s death squads and their deaths will not be investigated further but the third body is an older man’s which appears to have nothing to do with the others. It is this death that Lascano decides to investigate and he learns it is the body of an Auschwitz survivor who is now an almost universally loathed money-lender.

I have ranted at length about the enormous (seemingly unedited) tomes that are produced in such numbers these days so it is worth noting that I did a little happy dance when I opened this book on my eReader and found it to be 192 pages short. If anyone needs evidence that an engaging, thoughtful story can be told in less than a house brick sized lump they need look no further than the rather haunting Needle in a Haystack. Told from the perspective of several different characters and not in chronological order, the story comes together as a kind of literary jigsaw puzzle with some pieces being found early and having to lie on the table for a while, awaiting their connecting pieces to appear before the full picture could become clear. The book’s snappy length enabled this to be a very successful storytelling mechanism.

There are very memorable characters here, both good and evil. Lascano is a widower who has struggled to come to terms with his wife’s death and the scenes describing his home, from which nothing of hers has been removed, are sad but very credible.  His determination to his job, in the face of widespread corruption and overt threats is also credibly portrayed. Some of the most memorable characters have only fleeting appearances, like the General’s wife who thinks the baby she has adopted hates her, but they are all beautifully drawn.

I must admit I found the long blocks of italicised text which eschewed quotation marks and other punctuation a little off-putting as they slowed down my reading pace and I’m still not sure what the format was meant to add to the story. Also the sex scene which spoke of Lascano’s ‘sex being reborn and wanting to fly’ just made me laugh and the schmaltzy tone of the whole scene seemed out of place with the rest of the book. Overall though these are minor quibbles about an excellent book which is both a sound mystery and an unsentimental depiction of what must have been a horrifying time to live through.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This book has been reviewed at Crime Scraps, Euro Crime and Petrona and is one of 7 shortlisted titles for the 2011 CWA International Dagger Award

I’m using this as the second book for the South American leg of this year’s global challenge

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Translator Jethro Soutar
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press [this translation 2010, original edition 2005]
ISBN 9781904738565
Length 192 pages
Format ePub
Book Series The first in a trilogy (I believe the second has been translated into English and will be released soon)
Source I bought it

23 thoughts on “Review: Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

  1. Interesting review. I’m reading this book and cannot figure out what is happening, and the brutality is getting to me. I’ll utilize more patience and try again.

  2. Glad you enjoyed this book, Bernadette, I liked it a lot too – I admit I had forgotten the sex scene (must have glossed over it ;-) ) and can’t recall the italics so will have to check to see if they are in the print edition which I still have I think, or if they are an e-formatting glitch. I thought the brutality was awful but honest – I don’t like gratuitous brutality because I think it deadens our sensibilities, but for the period and place of this book, it seemed apporpriate. I thought the ending was shocking and wonder how he is going to continue the series…not long to wait now!
    (I am enjoying the new WordPress commenting system they rolled out a few days ago – it has so many nice features, it really makes commenting a pleasure instead of the gruesome experience on most blogging platforms.)

  3. Bernadette – I’m very glad you liked this one. Italics and sex aside, it’s so nice when a book tells a terrific story without having to be the size of a doorstop. It’ll be really interesting to see if this one’s the CWA winner.

  4. Thank you for the review. As it happens english speking readers find the sex scene somhow laughable, something that tle latin-speaking readers do not. Well, latins are more sentimental and they take these matters seriously. Cultural differemces I imagine. Regarding the italicsed text, most reader likes them, but some not. You can´t make everybody happy. Anyway rewies like your’s sure helps to keep on writing.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by Ernesto, and I suspect you are right – my reaction to the sex scene is probably to do with cultural differences.

      I didn’t mind the italics so much as the fact that often they incorporated lots of dialogue without any quotation marks and I had to read or re-read carefully to make sure I knew who was speaking at all times – again probably says more about me than it does about the book.

  5. Ehm, I don´t think Maxine can check her print version because as far as I remember she sent it on to me. So fortunately I have this one waiting for me on my TBR – as a post-exam treat.

  6. After I finished this, I realized it is a good book and the brutality reflects that of the terrible, oppressive junta regime. So it was realistic. It was definitely written by someone who knew this terrible time extremely well, which is why the book is so true to life.
    I did have trouble figuring out who was speaking in the italics’ sections.
    I do wonder how there will be a sequel, given the ending, although I’m pondering the concept of the future being in the imagination.
    A good book. Can see why it was a Dagger nominee.

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