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la red púrpura

23 august 2021

La Red Púrpura follows La novia gitana in Carmen Mola's Elena Blanco series of detective novels. Hardly any time elapses between the two stories. Elena has learned that her long-ago-abducted son Lucas is still alive, and in the process she's learned that the fearsome Red Púrpura he's become part of is involved in some of the most depraved activities on the Deep Web: livestreamed torture sessions where subscribers bid to see their most sadistic fantasies enacted on real victims.

It seems to be the consensus that such video streams – the 21st-century equivalent of snuff films, not least because the Red Púrpura kills the torture victims at their climax – are urban legends. Not that people aren't depraved enough, but that the logistics are too complicated, the chances for betrayal too great, and the risks too serious. There are few countries even in this awful world where human life is so cheap that you can just murder people for entertainment, and murdering them for entertainment while making an explicit recording of your crime is just stupid.

Yet the snuff film is a staple of thrillers because it corresponds so intimately to our fear of depravity. And the impersonal, insidious, tentacly spread of the Internet just amplifies this fear. Things we would never do or watch in person, we feel, we would slip into doing and watching on the screen of a laptop, buffered from reality by bits and bytes and firewalls. Such debasement by slow degrees is a central theme in La Red Púrpura.

We watch Elena Blanco and her ace detective team, trying to run down these torture-murderers who could be anywhere on the planet with sufficient bandwidth … but of course, obeying the logic of the thriller, the entire Red Púrpura is not only in Spain, but mostly within easy driving distance of Madrid. The first murder they witness does take place in the Canary Islands, but that's Spanish territory too, just a hop by puddle-jumper, and they learn of the event because a young man in Madrid happens to be watching the killing on his computer, and they hack his IP address or whatever it is that cyberdetectives do.

As the team close in on the killers, the crimes become less and less digital. The big climactic sequence in the novel – I will try to spare a lot of spoiler details – is all in person, involving a vast network of event planners who scour central Spain for high-rolling customers willing to pay big euros for an old-school ringside seat at an in-person horror show.

Every scene of La Red Púrpura is tautly written – at 415 pages (with a lot of white space) the novel doesn't seem long at all. Yet there are some facile moments. As in La novia gitana, Elena Blanco must go off the grid to pursue the crucial leads, and her team must track her down using some unlikely contrivance. And in a key development early on, Blanco's supercilious supervisor Rentero refuses her the €150,000 she needs to mount a sting operation … so she simply goes down to the bank and withdraws it. Blanco is extremely wealthy, a backstory detail we hadn't learned in the novel-and-a-half that precedes this scene.

But Carmen Mola's novels continue to appeal to me. Partly, as so often, because I just get a kick out of even being able to read something that isn't in English. But partly too, as I alluded above, because even an implausible popular thriller can tap into fears that circulate below the conscious level of discussion of a society. Most of the Internet is actually devoted to fan-group chat, political blather, selling of knick-knacks, and routine pornography where people actually don't get tortured or killed. But it's all so banal that we imagine that the knitting-club mavens and self-appointed COVID experts we run across are the tip of a roiling iceberg of degradation. If that were the case, you'd want Elena Blanco on that case.

Mola, Carmen. La Red Púrpura. Barcelona: Negra Alfaguara [Penguin Random House], 2019.

UPDATE 09.25.2021: I did give up about a third of the way through the third Blanco novel, La Nena. It was too gruesome – this sounds absurd to say after two novels filled with brain-eating worms and torture-filled snuff films, but I flinched at La Nena, where the violence is directly sexual and relentlessly directed toward a woman in captivity (not Elena this time, but her former colleague Chesca). Even the prospect of expanding my Spanish vocabulary wasn't worth the nausea.