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Javier Cercas: Terra Alta (Even the Darkest Night)

Javier Cercas has previously written what we might broadly call traditional novels but here he has turned to crime. This is the first in the series. Two subsequent ones have already appeared in Spanish. As the title tells us, the books are primarily set in Terra Alta, a remote, sparsely populated region of Catalonia. Nothing has happened there since the Battle of the Ebro in the Spanish Civil War.

Our hero is a police officer, Melchor Marín. At the start of the book, he is on duty when something finally does happen, a murder. During the course of the investigation, we learn something about the background of Melchor. His mother was a prostitute. He does not know who his father was, though he has an idea as to who he might be.

As a boy he misbehaved. The first time he went to court, his mother pleaded with the judge, saying he would reform. He did not. The second time, he got five months in prison. He joined a Colombian drug gang and did well there till the police arrested them all. In prison, the Colombians had him beaten up as a warning. His mother got a lawyer, Domingo Vivales, to help him. He was not impressed with the lawyer but as he was not charging her any money and his mother had no money, he has to accept him. Vivales managed to get him a reduced sentence.

Two things happen in prison which have a profound effect on him. Firstly, Vivales tells him that his mother has been brutally murdered. A key witness has disappeared and the other witnesses disagree about the car used by the likely assailants. The police soon drop the case. The second event is his meeting with an outspoken French fellow prisoner, known as Guille, who was in prison for murdering his wife and her lover. It is Guille who introduces him to Les Misérables, a book he will read several times. He initially identifies with Jean Valjean, the hunted prisoner, but goes off him somewhat when he turns respectable. However, he is impressed with Javert, the fanatic police officer determined to get his man.

When Vivales next visits, Melchor tells him that he wants to be a police officer. We know he succeeds, as he is a police offcer a the beginning of the book and we learn how, with the help of Vivales, he becomes one. While performing his regular duties, he assiduously tries to solve the mystery of his mother’s death, in particular trying to track down the missing witness, till he is warned off by an officer from the police Internal Affairs Department.

Things change when he becomes a hero, shooting four Islamic terrorists wearing explosive belts. However, his name is revealed to the press, so it is decided to temporarily relocate him to a remote area, hence Terra Alta. By the time the novel opens, the temporary has become four years.

The crime consists of the brutal torture and murder of the richest man in the area, Paco Adell and his wife, Rosa, and the murder of their Romanian maid. Melchor suspects a professional killing as there are no traces of the killers excepts for their tyre racks and, as they are Continentals, the most common make of tyre, it is not much help. Given the briutality of the torture, it is suggested that it could have been a ritual killing, not least because the Adells were members of Opus Dei.

The scale of the crime is considered too big for the local force so a regional officer takes charge and forms a team of which Melchor is a member and we follow the investigation, the various suspects, the internal police disputes, the various theories and so on.

As in good cop book/film practice, the powers-that-be eventually drop the case when little progress is made. Another case – a murdered child – is now hitting the headlines and it is decided that it will be a waste of resources to pursue the case. Melchor, of course, disagrees, and sets off on his own to solve the case, knowing full well he could be in trouble for doing so and he is inevitably caught and reprimanded by his superiors. It gets worse when the issue becomes personal.

Of course, he finds the key clue and thinks he has solved the case. He has not and, not surprisingly, as this is Spain, there is a Spanish Civil War connection.

While solving the actual crime certainly makes for an interesting story and one whose outcome I suspect few would have guessed, what makes this book is the character of Melchor. Here is a man who came from a difficult background, became a serious criminal, saw the light and became a police officer. I find it hard to believe that, even with the machinations to conceal his background, he would be accepted as a police officer. No matter. He did become a police officer and shows both great skills (firearms, getting information out of suspects. dogged persistence) as well as a negative side, i.e. he is a violent man and happy to beat up suspects, particularly those who have hurt women. I do not read many crime novels but I certianly enjoyed this one.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Planeta
First English translation in 2022 by Maclehose
Translated by Anne McLean