THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN
Dolores Redondo (www.doloresredondomeira.com)
Translated by Isabelle Kaufeler
The body of a young girl found on the banks of the Baztán River in Spain’s northern Navarre region calls for the expertise of the homicide squad from the nearby capital, Pamplona. Heading the team is Inspector Amaia Salazar, who finds herself returning to her childhood home town, Elizondo, to investigate this horrendous crime. As the body counts starts to rise, Salazar finds herself dealing with the stresses of the case, as well as the family strains that her move to Pamplona caused. Local mythology and superstition serve to further complicate an already complex investigation; meanwhile, the killer is still on the loose, and the frequency of his crimes is escalating quickly.
As Dolores Redondo’s debut novel opens, the reader gets the distinct impression that they have been here before; this is textbook crime fiction, a crime we’ve witnessed a hundred times over, and a troubled investigator who is likely to mirror a hundred others we’ve already spent time with. It doesn’t take long for Redondo to disabuse us of this notion, and set out her stall as something new, something interesting, a writer willing to take risks, and take the genre – and its readers – out of its comfort zone.
Amaia Salazar, the character at the centre of this rich and layered story, is like no fictional detective you have encountered before. As her backstory unravels, and the case progresses, we find ourselves in the presence of a strong, if troubled, person whose life has been shaped by her horrific and traumatic childhood. Tensions between her and the two sisters who stayed behind in Elizondo are palpable from the outset, and when one becomes a suspect in the case, Salazar’s sanity begins to unravel. Flashbacks to the Spring of 1989 gives us glimpses of her life as a girl growing up in this small, provincial Spanish town, and offers some insight into the person she has become. This is a troubled detective who is unlikely to take solace in the bottle, like so many of her predecessors, but for whom family and the promise of motherhood is the refuge she needs, even when she doesn’t realise it herself.
Alongside all this pressure, Amaia also finds herself dealing with a large dose of sexism, both on the institutional level, and in the eyes of small-minded, small-town people. Her assignment to the case by the Police Commissioner immediately causes friction with fellow Inspector, Fermín Montes, who immediately sets out to make her life more difficult. Interestingly, the rest of Salazar’s colleagues have a much more modern outlook, with her Deputy Inspector, Jonan Etxaide relishing the opportunity to learn from her.
Characterisation – and while Salazar is definitely the strongest character in the book, as you might expect, she is certainly far from the only strong or interesting character you’ll meet in the small town of Elizondo – aside, the other great strength in The Invisible Guardian, is in Redondo’s ability to instil a wonderful sense of place. Basing the action in a real small town in the northern reaches of the country, the author shows us a side of Spain that we tend not to see otherwise: it is February, and the Navarre region, nestled against the foothills of the Pyrenees, is cold and damp, a far cry from dense heat that we expect to find from a story set in this part of the world. But Redondo’s Navarre is much more than its geographical location; it is the people that inhabit it and their petty dislikes and superstitions, and the myths and legends that have sprung from these superstitions over the course of hundreds of years. The Invisible Guardian is soaked in these stories, these myths, and the investigation into the deaths of Ainhoa Elizasu and the other girls is inextricably linked with the beliefs of both the investigators, and of the townspeople with whom they are surrounded. Take this wonderful exchange, which, outside ultra-Catholic Spain, might seem a little odd:
She looked at Iriarte and pointed at him with her finger.
‘Inspector, can you bring me the calendars from your desk?’
Iriarte was back in barely two minutes. He put a calendar with a picture of the Immaculate Conception and another with a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes on the table.
The very name with which the media tag the killer, basajaun, shows just how deeply ingrained these beliefs, religious or otherwise, are in this little corner of the world and this underpinning is what gives Redondo’s novel its freshness, what makes it stand out from the crowd.
Forget Scandi-noir. When it comes to European crime fiction, it’s time to start looking elsewhere than the frozen wastes of the continent’s north. Dolores Redondo’s first novel shows that excellent crime fiction can come from Europe’s southern reaches as well. Steeped in atmosphere and driven by one of the most engaging protagonists to emerge for some years, The Invisible Guardian breathes new life into an old, creaking genre and paves the way for a new wave of fine Euro crime. The first book in The Baztán Trilogy, the second and third books of which are already available in Redondo’s native Spain, The Invisible Guardian is an accomplished and beautifully-written – not to mention ably translated, by Isabelle Kaufeler – work that will leave you gasping for more as your fingers whittle quickly through the final few pages.