Alicia Giménez-Bartlett

Inspector Petra Delicado and Sgt. Fermín Garzón - Barcelona, Spain

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"Death Rites"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 15, 2008)

“She mixes with thugs and whores as if it was nothing.  What to tell you about the way she tackles rapists and brutes during questioning?...From my point of view, she sometimes overdoes it.  The other day she stripped a poor pickpocket naked, stark bollock naked?  Left him there for over an hour…the guy almost died.  He cracked, he finally cracked...It takes a strong stomach to watch her work.”—Fermin Garzon, about  Petra Delicado"

Death Rites by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett

Though this is the third novel which Europa Editions has released in the Petra Delicado series (following Dog Days and Prime Time Suspect), it is the first in the series, chronologically.  Introducing us to Inspector Petra Delicado and her sergeant, Fermin Garzon, a detective combo which somehow “fits” perfectly despite their obvious differences, the novel explores their contrary life-styles, individual quirks, backgrounds, and age disparity. Petra, the “sophisticated…conspicuous, intelligent, and devoted” law partner of her husband Hugo,  abandoned their elegant law office—and the arrogant Hugo--to become a police officer, an inexplicable “step down,” in his opinion. 

Now in her thirties, she has remarried a charming, younger man named Pepe—and divorced him, too.   Pepe, however, is still dependent upon her and hangs around her new house wanting to be helpful, even dropping by on one occasion to leave a photograph of their cat on her sofa.  For her, “Contact with ex-husbands [was] a strange business.  Marriage was a fatty substance which always left stains on the skin, however much you scrubbed it with soap.”

This is Petra’s first real case.  Until now she has worked in the department of documentation, away from real crimes, but she tackles this investigation with all her considerable energy.  Feminist that she is, she is determined to prove that she is as tough as any of the men in the department.  Telling her own first-person story, she admits that “I was chuffed by my own military style…You had to whirl the whip overhead when someone thought to come and wish you good day.”

Fermin, also divorced, is estranged from his son, a doctor who lives in New York, but unlike Petra, he is softer and more sentimental--a laid-back and ferociously hard-working retiree from the Salamanca force, anxious to do his job in Barcelona.  Always aware that she is the inspector and he is the sergeant, he keeps his mouth closed when she becomes aggressive but stays around to pick up the pieces for her when that becomes necessary. Paunchy and in his fifties, Fermin lives in a dreary boarding house room but spends much of his time after work eating, drinking and talking at The Ephemerides, a bar owned by Pepe, Petra’s ex-husband.

In this novel, three young women have been raped, and they have all been branded on their forearms with a flower-shaped mark made by barbs.  None of the victims can or will provide any information, and Petra and Fermin must rely on tedious searches through databanks and plenty of legwork to come up with suspects.  What was the instrument used to brand the victims?  Who might have made it?  Who might have ordered it?  What, if any connections, exist between victims and rapist?  And ultimately, who would have murdered one of the victims, weeks after the crime?  Along the way, they must deal with the police hierarchy, which wants results, and with aggressive reporters who believe, and publicly state, that Petra and Fermin are unqualified for the job.

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, the author of this series and winner of the Feminino Lumen Prize as best female writer in Spain, is at least as interested (if not more interested) in character here as in dramatic action.  Concentrating on the intellectual contest between the rapist and the victims and eventually between a killer and victim, the author also shows Petra and Fermin as they engage in separate intellectual contests with the rapist and the murderer, with each other, with the police department, and with the press.  Gradually the lives and thoughts of the victims, suspects, and investigators are revealed.  Little action takes place on stage, except for a punch that Petra takes in the mouth, and the rapes and the murder of one of the first victims are  “reported” rather than presented “live.”  Blood, gore, and sensational action play little role in this novel.

For those who have read Prime Time Suspect, the third novel in this series (chronologically), Death Rites may seem simple and straightforward.  Giving the early background of Petra and Fermin and how they came to work together, it sets up the dynamics of their later partnership, which continues to develop as the series progresses.  The mystery itself is not very sophisticated or important here.  Though it is clever, it takes second place to the characters and how they became the people they are, both as victims and as aggressors.  Ultimately, “Everyone’s alone,” Petra says, “but that’s the way it is. If you’re alive, you have to keep on going…The important thing is inner peace, and that’s something no one knows how to achieve.” (Translated by Jonathan Dunn.)

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"Prime Time Suspect"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 26, 2007)

"There's one thing I've never learnt to do.  I've never learnt how to put laces in a pair of new shoes…I always used to have someone to do it for me: my father, my husbands.  I never wanted to learn; it must have been something to do with allowing myself to be loved, to let others fuss over me a bit…Even now, I try to find someone who will do it for me…I still refuse to learn.  I think it's something life owes me."

Prime Time Suspect by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett

Barcelona police inspector Petra Delicado's confession about shoelaces epitomizes the many paradoxes in her life.  A fiercely independent career woman, she refuses to tolerate any of the clichés or stereotypes about women and their behavior, even taking umbrage at the description of an evil man as a "son-of-a-bitch," since that term is insulting to mothers.  Acutely sensitive about the roles many men expect her to play, especially in the police department, she is tough and dedicated to her job, often working round the clock, and she resents even a hint of special treatment suggesting that she may be weaker than her male peers.  She regards her refusal to learn to put laces into new shoes as a conscious, independent decision—proof that she controls her own messy life—though  others might regard it as an unconscious wish for a personal relationship, even on a small scale. 

Married and divorced twice, Petra, now in her mid-forties, fantasizes about taking time off to go to a convent for non-believers, where bruised, exhausted people, like herself, can relax and find solitude.  But she realizes that that fantasy is not workable.  "What about sex and love?" she wonders, concluding that such a convent would become a brothel within three days.  Moody, sarcastic, sometimes melancholy, and often on the verge of a self-described crisis, Petra wants to be alone. 

Acting as foil to the ferociously self-sufficient Petra, is her partner, Sgt. Fermin Garzon, a man in his fifties who has a softer, more sentimental side.  Fermin, also divorced, tries to protect Petra from herself so subtly, sometimes, that she does not even realize it, and while the novel shows that each truly likes and respects the other, Fermin is Petra's employee, and he does not overstep his boundaries.  With "energy for two people and no psychological hang-ups," Fermin provides balance for the high-strung Petra.

The murder of Ernesto Valdes, a ruthless, even amoral, gossip reporter, takes Petra and Fermin from Barcelona to Madrid and back as they investigate whether Valdes was killed for revenge or to shut him up, and whether the killer was a hired gun or someone for whom this was a crime of passion.  Various members of the police force in Barcelona and Madrid check Valdes's financial records, along with those of his ex-wife, his interior decorator, and any possible partners he might have had in a blackmail scheme, since he managed to stash a large amount of cash in a Swiss bank, its origins unknown.  With Maggy, Valdes's "Goth" assistant at the TV station, providing some help to Petra and Fermin, they work to track down leads. 

Before long, this case begins to overlap with another case being investigated by Inspector Moliner, the Barcelona Police Department's star investigator, in which the government Health Minister has been murdered.  Valdes has publicly revealed the minister's dalliances with a mistress and embarrassed him and his family, and the two murders might be related. Eventually, six deaths occur, with the investigation building inexorably to a grand climax as Petra and Fermin try to determine how many different killers and how many different motives there might have been in the overlapping cases.

The mystery is clever and beautifully plotted, but it is in the characters that this novel really excels.  Author Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, winner of the Femenino Lumen prize as best female writer in Spain, has created in Petra and Fermin characters who are so unusual and intriguing that the reader never tires of their interchanges.  Much more fully developed than the typical investigating team in police procedurals, they are revealed on the psychological level at the same time that the reader comes to know them through their actions, and even at the conclusion Petra remains unpredictable and somewhat elusive. 

The supporting characters are also exceptionally well drawn, with Maggy, Valdes's assistant, being particularly well developed.  Bitter and resentful of both Valdes and the police, she is a reluctant participant in the investigation, and her interchanges with Petra are fascinating for what they reveal about both of them.  Petra's sister, newly separated from her husband and staying at Petra's apartment in Barcelona, adds another level of interest as she conducts an affair with Insp. Moliner and calls into question Petra's own attitudes toward love.  The second in the Petra Delicado series (after Dog Day),  Prime Time Suspect is a well-translated, first-class mystery with two main characters who provide endless opportunities for further growth and development.  Filled with astute observations about people and society, this novel goes beyond "mere" entertainment, creating a realistic picture of the culture and its social conflicts. (Translated by Nick Caistor.)
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About the Author:

Alicia Gimenez-BartlettAlicia Gimenez-Bartlett was born in Almansa, Spain, in 1951 and has lived in Barcelona since 1975. She taught Spanish Literature for thirteen years, but after the enormous success of her first novels, she decided to leave her work to dedicate herself full-time to writing.

She won the Femenino Lumen prize in 1997 as the best female writer in Spain with her book Una Abitacion Ajena, which recounts the difficult relationship between Virginia Woolf andher maid. She subsequently launched her Petra Delicado series, quickly making her into one of Spain’s most popular and loved crime writers. The Petra Delicado novels were made into a 13-part television series.

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