The Buenos Aires Quintet

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor
Duffy and Snellgrove 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
Catalan private investigator Pepe Carvalho goes to Buenos Aires to try to find a cousin who has gone missing, and whose wife and daughter "disappeared" twenty years ago. This involves him with his cousin's old friends and colleagues, who have made their compromises with the state, with elements of the security forces, including the mysterious Captain who once tortured them, and with police inspector Pascuali and his sidekick Vladimero, named after Lenin. There are a variety of sub- and side-plots, as Carvalho, to make ends meet, sets up a private detective business with a local front-man.

The Buenos Aires Quintet is fast paced and action-filled. It is also light-hearted, with violence that is never visceral and no real tension or actual mystery. The fascination comes, instead, from the setting and characters.

There's a varied array of unusual and sometimes outlandish figures, from street-dwellers to the upper echelons of the oligarchy: a man claiming to be the natural child of Jorge Luis Borges, who runs afoul of Borges fanatics determined to protect his memory; a pair play-acting Robinson Crusoe and Friday; "no good" women and men who fall for them; a leading boxer obsessed by his own good looks; and more. There's also tango and poetry and food and cooking. Carvalho is a gourmet and a cook himself, and the culmination of The Buenos Aires Quintet comes at a gourmet club dinner where murder strikes in an entirely unexpected quarter. Among Carvalho's other quirks is a fondness for burning books.

Vázquez Montalbán was a communist and an anti-Franco and anti-Aznar activist, and his sympathies with the poor and opposition to the corruptions and abuses of power are clear. But this is never simplistic or didactic in The Buenos Aires Quintet, where all the politics comes naturally from the plot, and where food and poetry are just as important. Montalbán is easy reading and Pepe Carvalho is a refreshingly different kind of detective.

July 2006

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%T The Buenos Aires Quintet
%A Vázquez Montalbán, Manuel
%M Spanish
%F Caistor, Nick
%I Duffy and Snellgrove
%D 2003
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1876631678
%P 378pp