Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas) by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán – A Review

Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas)
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Planeta, 1979, 220 pg

Los mares del Sur is the fourth of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho detective novels.  1979 Planeta Prize winning novel is considered as one of his best and it representative of the popular series, filled with all the quirks that made Vázquez Montalbán’s novels popular: food, social commentary, a picture of Spain at a moment of great change. Much like great noir from American authors like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, Los mares del Sur is not just a detective story; it is something more: a picture of Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is the combination of an intriguing and memorable detective with a well drawn Barcelona that makes Los mares del Sur a vital novel.

The mystery is Stuart Pedrell, a wealthy businessman who goes missing. The family calls in Carvalho to search for him. There is a suggestion that he had abandoned everything and had gone to live on an island in the South Seas. From this simple request, Carvalho begins his exploration of Barcelona society. The wife is cold and more interested in his wealth. His closest friends don’t seem to care much about him either. It’s more important that Carvalho keep up appearances. Carvalho’s investigations, though, bring him to a working class barrio where Pedrell has been moonlighting as an accountant and setting himself up in an apartment in the same neighborhood. The discovery of the apartment leads to one of the most detailed description of detection as Carvalho goes from cafe to cafe looking for someone who’d known him. Ultimately, the search brings him to his young, pregnant lover who only knew him as the accountant, not a wealthy man. Her hostility to Carvalho’s investigations mirror those throughout the book as the wealthy who had profited from the Franco regime face the coming of democracy. She has no interest in Carvalho’s ideas of duty. She has her own life and doesn’t care much about the rich who have paid him. The tension between these worlds animates the tension, and, finally, the conclusion.

That scant outline, of course, is, like most great detective stories, almost inconsequential. Los mares del Sur certainly holds together as a mystery and the conclusion makes sense. Nevertheless, it is Pepe Carvalho who is the real focus. Carvalho is one of the great fictional detectives like Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, at once recognizable and uniquely his own character. His most obvious trait is his precise and biting descriptions of Spanish society as it goes through its transition to democracy. They alternate with Vázquez Montalbán’s third person narration which adds another level of commentary. Each provides a prescient criticism of all strata of society, although Carvalho himself is an ex-communist who did time in prison and whose some-time girlfriend is a prostitute. It is a fossilized and brittle Barcelona he encounters, still stuck, in many ways, in the past. Carvalho, like the best detectives, has no illusions about the past, and although he is not a hard boiled detective, he has a hard edge.

Carvalho, as well as Vázquez Montalbán, was a well known gourmet and all the books in the series are filled with references to food. Carvalho is always drinking a white wine or discussing food. And there are several stretches given over to cooking. In one section there is a detailed description of making a shrimp omelette. In another, as he, his butler Biscuter, and several friends discuss the case, they make an elaborate dinner that is described in great detail. The love of food is one of the classic Carvalho elements.

Los mares is an humorous and meta novel. In one chapter Carvalho stumbles on to a noir novel talk presentation from a professor. Vázquez Montalbán both describes what noir fiction is about, and also makes fun of the genre. It lends a level of criticism and self-awareness to the novel that is refreshing. Yes, the novel is criticism, but it is also understood that the noir genre can be over imbued with meaning that is not necessarily there.

Fortunately, for English readers Melvile House published a translation in 2012. Several other of his books are available in English.