Novel cooks up paella of spies, money, murder

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Robert Wilson is best known for "A Small Death in Lisbon," a big book which won big awards for good reasons. In his latest, the last of a quartet featuring police detective Javier Falcon, the action, while international, stays mainly in Spain.

And, despite his Iberian locales, Wilson's story is purely Byzantine. He is a master of the psychological noir-international, espionage-police procedural.

This hybrid has spying, gruesome accidental deaths and serial murders, kidnapping, theft and government and corporate corruption at local, national and international levels.

The novel begins with a horrific car accident in which a Russian mafioso carrying 8 million Euros (about $11 million) is killed. He and other Russians are involved in a turf war over the drug and prostitution business on the Costa del Sol.

Falcon is assigned to the case even though he has been working hard at solving the Seville train bombing. The two crimes do not seem related, but these and other despicable actions form a complex and tightly woven fabric in which Falcon, his lover, Consuelo Jimenez, his relatives and friends find themselves enmeshed.

Falcon has had personal problems in the recent past. His ex-wife Ines was murdered, and her new husband, Esteban Calderon, the now disgraced judicial official in the bombing case, has confessed to the crime. Calderon's Cuban mistress, Marisa Moreno, is also being threatened but refuses to explain why.

By Robert Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27)

He has recruited his oldest friend, Yacoub Diori, a Muslim from northern Africa who was raised in Spain, to spy on Muslim fundamentalists. They in turn have recruited Diori's son and are training him to become a political terrorist, something Yacoub cannot openly oppose. Only Falcon can help him save the son from a situation which involves both Spain's spies and Britain's MI5.

Falcon's troubles are compounded when he learns that his lover's son, Dario, has been kidnapped. Are the Russians behind it or the train bombers?

He sees another possibility: A valuable piece of real estate on the Spanish coast is up for grabs and big international corporations are interested. The kidnapping could be warning Falcon to drop his pursuit of local political corruption.

With so many players, so much action and so many possible scenarios to imagine, Wilson has no trouble keeping his reader's interest. It's a great read.

Because he survives the unbearable situations he must deal with, Falcon is a brave, admirable and believable figure.

Wilson employs a full palette in creating characters, many of whom "play against type." Whether a reader can as willingly suspend his disbelief for a plot only a conspiracy theorist could love is another question.

But remember: All this happens in Spain. Take this book to the beach this summer but, just to be safe, not the Costa del Sol!

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.


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