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The Galician tourist board really ought to be paying author Domingo Villar; his Leo Caldas novels set in the coastal city of Vigo are an enticing advertisement for the region. Imagine having long leisurely seafood lunches with a glass or two of wine; follow that with a quick paddle before going back to work or even a drive to a country vineyard. It’s almost worth dealing with the occasional mutilated corpse to lead that kind of life.
In 'Water-blue Eyes' Caldas has to investigate the mysterious death of Luis Reigosa, a jazz musician. When the call comes through, Caldas is taking part in the weekly radio programme in which he tries to help members of the public with the questions they have for the police; although Leo finds that he has to pass most questions to his colleagues in the traffic section, his new found fame helps to open doors that might otherwise remain closed, a definite advantage when for a homicide detective.
Reigosa has been found dead in his apartment, tied to the bed with his genitals disfigured in the most bizarre way. The pathologist on the scene has never seen anything like it but tests show that formaldehyde had been injected into the victim’s groin causing the penis to shrivel while the rest of the body was largely undamaged. It would have been a very painful and unpleasant death but who would know that the substance would have that kind of effect? Certainly the pathologist didn’t.
The signs seem to point to a crime of passion; after all, there appear to be no signs of forced entry to the property and two glasses have been left on a table in the apartment. But even Reigosa’s fellow band members know little about the musician’s private life leaving the cops little to go on.
Although the initial lack of clues might suggest that this is going to be a clever and convoluted tale, I was more than a little disappointed by the somewhat obvious outcome. The likely suspects are narrowed down rather too quickly and the ending was predictable. Given that 'Water-blue Eyes' is only 167 pages long I wasn’t surprised; as the story progressed I had a feeling that the outcome had to be simple because there wasn’t enough space left to have a more complicated story.
It’s in setting the scene that Villar really succeeds. He paints an enticing picture of Vigo, a part of Spain that is generally less well known, certainly to British readers. Although we don’t see him cook, Caldas does appreciate good food, always managing to make time for a hearty lunch. The descriptions of the meals are not just mouth-watering; they also highlight the regional culture, especially the fondness for seasonal seafood.
Another aspect of Galician culture that is frequently referred to is the habit of Galicians to prevaricate. Caldas’s assistant, Estevez. Recently arrived from Zaragoza (we don’t learn the reason for his transfer but his quick temper may have readers reaching their own conclusions) he finds this trait of the Galicians hard to handle. In one wonderful scene Estevez tries to take down a witness statement from a teenager who when asked to confirm his address asks an enraged Estevez “Would that be where I normally live?” Martin Schifino’s competent translation also keeps the dialogue natural while imbuing the text with a strong local flavour.
I read the next in the series Death on a Galician Shore before this one and I enjoyed it enough to backtrack. Would I have read more had I started with 'Water-blue Eyes'? On the basis of the plot probably not: the crime element is undeniably weak. However, the setting and the characters form an irresistible combination and I would probably have read on to learn more about Caldas. 'Water-blue Eyes' hints that it worth reading on to get to know this complex character and, what’s more, about the Galicia region, of which we have a tantalising introduction here.