Death Rites and book groups

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites was the book up for discussion at my latest mystery book group meeting, and I am, in spite of having thought about the book before the meeting quite a lot and having spent several hours discussing it with the group, still not quite sure how I feel about it. I liked the book when I first started reading it, but then at some point I began having doubts, and then I enjoyed it again, and then I doubted, and after I finished my reaction wasn’t any clearer. Then I listened to other members of the group explain why they didn’t like it, and it was hard not to be swayed by the general consensus.

I’m not usually so indecisive. The problem seems to be that the book never quite came together for me, so I liked this part of it, didn’t like that part, and could never quite pull everything together to have a real opinion.

Much of the problem for the book group was the translation, or at least the possibility that the translation might be bad made it hard to judge whether the book itself was any good or not. The writing was certainly awkward, with badly constructed sentences and bizarre images (although some of the bizarre images I liked). But there were other problems — a main character who can be intensely unlikeable, a plot that floundered at times, and a resolution that was too predictable.

To say something about the book itself, it’s set in Barcelona and tells the story of Petra Delicado, an inspector who has been working in the documentation department and who gets called upon unexpectedly to investigate a rape case. She is assigned to work with Fermin Garzon, a rather plodding, obedient type who is close to retirement. The two have to figure out not only how to run an investigation, something Petra at least has little experience with, but also how to deal with each other. There is tension between the two of them from the very beginning; Petra isn’t used to being in charge and has to figure out how to exert authority in a world that grants it to women only grudgingly, and Fermin has to figure out how to respond to a boss who knows less about investigating than he does. Plus Fermin has some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women that Petra does not like.

The two do a pretty bad job of investigating, or at least that’s what members of the press accuse them of. They have no good leads for a very long time and spend a surprisingly long period floundering about desperately looking for some kind of breakthrough. I’m not entirely convinced that they are bad investigators, though, or at least that they are bad as people think they are. They do make some mistakes, but they are rookies, after all. But even more so, I wonder whether this portrayal of an investigation isn’t more realistic than investigations often are in novels. What do investigators do when there are no clues? When no clues appear for a very long time? When every trail they follow leads them nowhere? The press accuses them of failing in their job, but I wonder whether other, more experienced investigators would have been able to do it better. In novels, investigators struggle and take time to solve their cases, but I wonder whether they struggle a lot less and take a lot less time than real-life investigators do.

We also talked in my book group about how often Petra and Fermin take breaks from their work and how often they are to be found in restaurants or bars, rather than working on the investigation. This is probably one of their most serious mistakes, but I have to say, I’m entirely in sympathy with their commitment to eating well and resting up. This is illogical of me, I suppose, since with a rapist on the loose, they really do need to be in a hurry. And yet I do get tired of detectives who never seem to sleep and who skip meals all the time and who basically act like their non-working lives don’t matter in the least. Petra has just bought a new house, and she’s trying to settle into it, and I sympathize with her occasional feelings of resentment at a job that’s pulling her away from it.

So these elements I liked, and I also liked Petra’s vocal feminism and the struggles she goes through to figure out how to establish and maintain power, and also how to use that power effectively without abusing it (which she fails at spectacularly a time or two). But at the same time, the narrative did get dull now and then and Petra’s character remains a bit elusive. There was some spark, something lively, missing from the book. And the translation was a problem.

That’s the best I can do with this book, it seems. For other thoughts, you can read Emily’s post.


Filed under Books, Fiction

6 responses to “Death Rites and book groups

  1. As I said on Emily’s post, I have serious trouble with Spanish literature, which sounds AWFUL and I long for someone to give me a really cracking novel in translation so I can change my mind entirely. But every book I’ve ever read translated from the Spanish has been odd and confusing. This must be about poor choices rather than cultural trends, but alas, empirically, it is so.

  2. You hit the nail on the head: I just could not figure out how I felt about the book, which is what led me to decide not to finish it. I, like you, was happy to see them eating a good deal and having their meals described, though. Did anyone in the book discussion think it was weird how much a part of her life both ex-husbands still seemed to be?

  3. Too bad the book didn’t quite work out. It seems like it has a lot of good elements but just didn’t live up to its potential.

  4. I read this a few years ago and recall liking it, so much so that I bought the next book she wrote. It sounds as though it didn’t go over well with your group–that certainly can affect how you end up feeling about a story. I do think translations can make the prose seem clunky and probably it is hard to translate nuances of language or culture–but I do think Europeans have an entirely different way of thinking about leisure time than we do here and how it should fit in with work. Hopefully it wasn’t a complete bomb of a read.

  5. I’m not familiar with this author at all, but it sounds like a frustrating read. I’ve been wanting to experiment with non-American, non-British mysteries, and I am hoping the Inspector Montalbano mysteries from Italy will turn out better than your book group’s experience with this one.

  6. Litlove — how interesting! I wonder why you’ve had such a hard time — bad luck, or some cultural difference that’s hard to figure out. It would be interesting to know! At any rate, I’m not sure you should read this one next :)

    Emily B. — oh, good, I’m glad you agree with me, both about the lacklusterness of it and about the eating! We did talk about the ex-husbands, and how funny it was that Pepe and Fermin become such good friends. It was a funny moment when Petra says she doesn’t know who Fermin is — she has no idea he is Garzon! The ex-husbands show the great number of issues Petra could work through in therapy if she wanted to …

    Stefanie — yeah, that’s it. The book has some interesting ideas, but it didn’t take them far enough or really use them to full advantage.

    Danielle — it wasn’t a bomb for me at all — it was something interesting to think about. I’m curious about her other two books because they are translated by different people, so the group was wondering whether they are significantly different. You are right about the different way of looking at leisure — I wonder how much of our problem with the book was not really understanding the culture.

    Debby — trying new things is great, but it does bring a risk, right? I hope you enjoy the Inspector Montalbano books when you get there — I’ll be curious to read what you think!

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