Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett is one of Spain’s most popular writers and after reading Death Rites, the first in her Petra Delicado crime novels, I can understand why. Gimenez-Bartlett masterfully combines a twisting plot with existential questions of life, including the conflict of freedom versus duty, a conflict particularly interesting to the generations of Spaniards that experienced youth under Franco’s repressive regime and then burst into a heady but confusing adulthood under the social and political freedoms of Felipe Gonzales and the Socialist party. Set in Barcelona, Police officer Petra Delicado represents the new way of thinking about things, with her wilful dedication to pursuing her own self-determined path and her partner Fermin Garzon represents the old way, a man who has lived his life following orders and the ordered way of managing marriage, career, and child.
The two police officers, Inspector Delicado and Sergeant Garzon, are put together on a strange case of serial rape, a case with few clues, uncooperative victims, and hounding coverage by the press. Delicado’s gender is the first of many obstacles to the two working together and it takes the whole book for stereotypes on both sides to fall and for the humanity of each to become apparent to the other: it is no coincidence that the final line of the book echoes a similarly wrong-footed relationship that righted itself in the pursuit of good over evil (hint: Casablanca).
The criminal aspect of the novel’s plot involves sexual repression, family abandonment, and moral strictures and structures, and supports the even-more interesting aspect of the book, which is its existential exploration of self-determination. Twice-divorced, well-educated, and upper class Delicado is trying to figure out a life for herself, and so is the widowed, middle-class, life-long civil servant Garzon. Gimenez-Bartlett makes us care about the two of them: the way they go about their investigation, use their free time, and how they strive to map out their individual and shared futures, is compelling and unpredictable, and wholly realistic.
Delicado is prone to beautifully expressed philosophical insights that never let her off the hook, but instead probe and prod with painful insistence. In thinking about her first failed marriage, she sums up the crux of the problem of such relationships, where commitment is valued over connection: “You must never be the first, it’s better not to move, all you have to do is rebuild with willpower what is then destroyed in moments of sincerity.” In thinking about a frustrating day involving a dead cat and her second-ex husband, slinking through bars looking for a lead in the investigation, suffering through cold and through her partner’s antiquated ideas of womanhood, she regrets her petty outbursts of anger but realizes — again, without excusing herself — that “It’s easy to be level-headed and balanced when surrounded by intelligence and comfort, such are the honeyed fruits of civility.” The question is where are such “honeyed fruits of civility”? Is this another antiquated notion, a failure in her life or in all modern life?
Garzon is another one for self-examination and mortification, his more directly related to a strictly Catholic upbringing and a subsequent marriage devoid of pleasure: “I must belong to the eighth or ninth generation of slaves. I’ve always been taught the value of things, duty first, working to pay for what I have….You see I feel guilty for everything, when I overstep the mark of having fun as well.”
Freedom to determine one’s life versus rules that dictate all choices: this conflict runs throughout Death Rites. Although Gimenez-Bartlett comes out firmly on the side of freedom, using the sad and pathetic conclusion of the criminal investigation to underscore the danger of repressive rules, she makes sure her readers understand that freedom of self-determination does not lead to happiness. As Delicado declares, “making mistakes is about all a human being can do with his freedom.” The best we can hope for is “a little peace to live in.” And great books like Death Rites to read. I look forward to following Delicado and Garzon through their subsequent investigation, both criminal and philosophical.