The following review appeared in The Guardian recently:
Writers of crime fiction find themselves in the middle of an arms race. To compete in this new world today’s thriller must be equipped with multiple conspiracies that reveal ultimately, and always, pan-institutional corruption going all the way up to the President/the Pope/God himself. Into this world of massacres and media manipulation, drone strikes and biological weapons steps Spanish novelist Javier Marías with a simple blade with which he pares back the form to its essence: a single death and the attempt at its cover up.
Every morning Maria Dolz takes her breakfast at the same café. Across from her always sits the “Perfect Couple”. She watches them admiringly until one morning they don’t turn up. He has been killed, knifed to death by a vagrant. When the woman eventually reappears Maria approaches her and is invited to her house, where she meets Javier Diaz-Varela, with whom she begins an affair that pulls her into the orbit of the murder.
Steeped in the literature of his continent – the complex morality of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and Shakespeare’s Macbeth are minutely dissected – Marías’s novel is also a riposte to the relentless pacing of genre fiction. For as well as paring down the form he has extended it, telescoping time in such a way that he can articulate the moral and ethical assumptions that inform our seemingly intuitive decisions. Whole chapters are devoted to thought processes a few seconds long, and the characters communicate in epic meditations on love, death and enamoramientos, an emotional state far more urgent than the translation “infatuation” suggests. Unsurprisingly, these almost Kundera-like mini-essays impact on the verisimilitude of the narrative, but this matters not for they are beautifully written, and impish in their moral ambiguity.
By contenting himself with a single death Marías is able to cut through the fat of the modern murder mystery so that we might see homicide for what it is: the worst of crimes but also something commonplace, a cliché. As the musketeer Athos says enigmatically of one of his own crimes: “It was a murder, nothing more.”