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.
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My rating 4/5
Translator Jethro Soutar
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press [this translation 2010, original edition 2005]
Length 192 pages
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