Wednesday, October 19, 2016

At Close QuartersAt Close Quarters by Eugenio Fuentes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He was positive that, if there was a cardinal virtue in a military man, it wasn't courage, strategic intelligence, ambition or equitableness, but pride, and that all other qualities depended on it."

Since I had enjoyed Blood of the Angels , the first novel in the Cupido series by Eugenio Fuentes I was looking forward to reading his At Close Quarters (2007). In the former novel I liked the formula where the main character, private detective Ricardo Cupido, stays largely in the background and the plot focuses on everybody else. The author tries to use the same formula here but the book does not work for me quite as well. One of the reasons may be the presence of Cupido's companion and helper, Alkalino, and the cliché "detective and his sidekick" interplay between the two characters. The intriguing setup of the novel deserves a better treatment than that.

Samuel, a divorced, lonely small business owner becomes enamored of Marina, a woman whom he sees from his window every day as she drops off her child at the school-bus stop. He sets his camera to automatically take street pictures so that he can get her photos even when he is out at work. The camera captures Marina's images but also a lot more: Samuel can see the scene of a horrible accident (it reminds of the great Antonioni's movie, Blow-Up from 1966). Meanwhile, the woman's father, major Olmedo, a high-ranking officer at the local military base is about to present a report, commissioned by the government, that will recommend closing of the base for efficiency reasons. Obviously almost everybody on the base is against the closure so the major has many enemies. Also other people have serious personal grudges against Olmedo, so when he is found in his house shot dead and the police recommends the verdict of suicide, Marina cannot believe it and hires Cupido to investigate the case.

The plot - there are many additional threads - follows all characters who might have had reasons to kill Olmedo. I find only the base-closing thread interesting. Mr. Fuentes's observations of the paradigm change in the Spanish army, from the old, personnel-based force to the new model founded on information and technology, are fascinating. There is a moving scene of the last pledge of allegiance to be executed at the San Marcial base. Alas, other threads are not on the same level. Schopenhauer-reading Alkalino is a paper-thin character and formulaic threads that involve Bramante, Ucha, and Beltrán threads lack depth.

Cupido's method of "firmly yet gently asking questions" is supposedly very effective yet the author has not been able to explain why it is so and everybody seems just to be saying how good Cupido is in the art of detection. By rearranging the accounts of events the author artificially structures the plot to enhance the mystery-solving aspect. Also, when several characters face moral dilemmas and the plot forces them to make choices the author is not quite successful in avoiding naiveté.

Yet overall, marginal "thumbs up" from this reviewer. Superficial psychology is balanced by the outstanding military policy thread and the silliness of the Alkalino thread fails to overshadow the great premise of the novel.

Three stars.

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