For those familiar with the author's The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, this installment will come as a long-awaited prize. And that's why it's a tad difficult to even review it objectively. I suspect there are those who love the series almost unconditionally (myself counted among that number) and will brook no criticism. Suffice to say that this one has the all the familiar elements: intricate plotting, memorable dialog, doomed and complex characters, and that overall sense of the poetically macabre, that creeping chill even while being swept along in the dense and evocative prose.
Here we meet a new character, one Senorita Alica Gris. Carrying childhood scars from the terrible Civil War in 1930s Barcelona, Gris has the cunning of a street urchin but also a touch of the damned, the devilish, about her. She's fully aware of her dark magnetism and wields it like a scythe on unsuspecting and instantly-infatuated victims. On top of which she works for a shadowy branch of the Madrid Secret Police and her job profile is equally, indeed suitably, vampirish.
At the center of the plot is Alicia's last assignment: to locate the missing Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has disappeared from his mansion. But wait, someone doesn't actually want him found...
Page after page has flown by, the clock has gone past midnight when you realize that 800 pages is not that long after all. Gris and her new partner, officer Vargas, are digging around and soon are back in Barcelona. Ah, there's the Sempere clan in their bookshop; and as for the inimitable Fermin, well, he pretty much started off the proceedings with a suitable amount of skulduggery, so all is well. Then with usual suspects David Martin and Julian Carax appearing as slim vignettes, the connection to the rest of the series is established. (How wonderful it is that each of these four books can be read as a standalone, and in any order. Of course I am fortunate that I started with the first.)
What is there to even say? This time I had a deeper appreciation of Barcelona itself as a character. The tight alleys and brooding architectural style of this fascinating city do lend themselves to the sense of foreboding and murky backstories that emerge from the mist. Especially poignant are real photographs from the 1930s and '50s; having visited both Madrid and Barcelona now, all this was superbly satisfying. The author draws Barcelona in particular with such authority and intimacy that it's obvious he is an insider. In the same way, he is merciless about the Spanish national character in general. (He lives in LA though, perhaps I should stalk him? Hehe.)
The only part I didn't like was the end. Little Julian's story seemed unnecessary, and then began to strike me as self-indulgent. Oh well. Never mind. The previous 700 pages or so had me so grateful to be in the hands of this unabashedly and lavishly talented writer that I am prepared to forgive.
Now perhaps I should attempt to get my hands on all four of the series, but in Spanish.