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la novia gitana
30 may 2021
"¿La Elena Ferrante española?" asks the back cover of Carmen Mola's 2018 novel La novia gitana, but the resemblance lies in "Carmen Mola" being an impenetrable pseudonym for the real author. La novia gitana does not recall Ferrante's family sagas but fits squarely into the detective-inspector tradition of Henning Mankell.
La novia gitana can be translated "The Gypsy Bride" – I'm not sure that either "gitana" or "gypsy" is a neutral term anymore, and I wonder what associations this term for Roma people might have in contemporary Spain. Mola's book doesn't treat gitanos very progressively. They are seen as an archaic, violent, unassimilable people, deeply implicated in organized crime; a people linked with "rituales y maldiciones ancestrales" (243), ancestral rituals and curses. La novia gitana is a good story if you can bracket this stereotyping, but maybe it shouldn't be bracketed; maybe it's not a very sensitive novel.
And it's not a flawless story in technical terms either. We have to accept that it's possible to murder someone by trepanning their skull and inserting larvae of the screwfly Cochliomyia hominivorax, which will proceed to eat their brain from the inside while they are still alive. I'm not sure this works and I don't really want to find out. But in the book, it seems such a distinctive MO that when it happens for the second time in seven years in Madrid, it's reasonable to assume it's the same killer.
Especially when the second victim is sister to the first, and both were killed just before they became gypsy brides to paya, non-Roma, bridegrooms. But the first killer is in prison already – is he innocent? Or maybe the killer is a copycat, but one detective says "Yo nunca me he encontrado con ningún imitador" (207) – I've never run into a copycat murderer. Of course there's always a first time. The convicted killer's lawyer asserts that "es evidente que las dos muertes son obra del mismo asesino" (237), it's obvious that the two deaths are the work of the same killer, but of course he would say that; he's trying to free his client on the theory that the original murderer was never caught and has resumed his wormy ways.
Meanwhile, there's a sinister killer, or more than one of them, out there, who specializes in immobilizing women and despatching them via a particularly cruel and recondite method. How long before he traps inspectora Elena Blanco herself and submits her to the worm treatment? At about 400 pages, La novia gitana might be 100 pages too long, and much of the second half is spent waiting for this particular trap to be sprung. When it does, it requires that Blanco's mobile phone suddenly and irremediably run out of battery power. Ah, not long ago Jules Maigret had to stop in a bar and have a Pernod every time he wanted to call the office. The invention of the cellphone has not been good for detective plots.
Elena Blanco holds up her end of the drinking tradition, though, draining bottle after bottle of grappa as she wrestles with her private demons. The case of the screwfly slayer hinges on the stories of two boys whose caregivers haven't been able to protect them, and Blanco can identify with them. Her own son was snatched by a kidnapper years before and has never resurfaced; she cannot break out of the remorse and guilt that surround his disappearance. She douses her grief with alcohol, karaoke, and anonymous sex, none of which are up to the task.
Blanco's foil is Ángel Zárate, a run-of-the-mill detective who "catches" the newest worm-murder and then has to release it to Blanco's elite cold-case squad. Zárate joins the unit temporarily, and even becomes the rare lover who is invited back to Elena's apartment more than once; but he is concealing that fact that his own mentor, now declining into Alzheimer's, investigated the original killing and may have gotten the wrong killer – or at best, framed the right one.
La novia gitana has led to a couple of sequels, and I've already acquired the next, La Red Púrpura, or "The Dark Web," the semi-mythical cyber crime scene dear to so much recent detective fiction, the network that may conceal Elena Blanco's missing son. I will report on that one in turn.
Mola, Carmen. La novia gitana. 2018. Barcelona: Negra Alfaguara [Penguin Random House], 2019.