The English adore their Spanish holidays almost as much as they love queuing for buses, rooting for native-born tennis players not quite good enough for the Wimbledon finals and, of course, their pints of bitter, their noble dogs and their endless television series about ancient Roman weirdos. So it was shrewd of Robert Wilson to take the entire Iberian peninsula as the setting for his novels, which combine the quotidian details of the police procedural with the somewhat more stirring activities of the international thriller. In essence, he's creating reads for people beached beside the gloomy Thames and counting the weeks until they're noshing tapas and burning their backsides on the Costa del Sol.
Wilson's latest, "The Ignorance of Blood" (a ringing, but utterly meaningless title), is a close sequel to "The Hidden Assassins," occurring just a matter of weeks after that story, largely about a terrorist bombing of a building that housed a preschool in Seville, ended on a slightly ambiguous note. Once again, his protagonist is Javier Falcon, chief inspector of the Seville homicide squad, a troubled rationalist confronting . . . well, let's see: the Russian mafia, Islamic terrorists, multinational businessmen up to no good, bureaucratic bumbling at the higher levels of his own organization, the morally ambiguous interventions of a CIA operative, the cranky, unhelpful presence of MI5 functionaries in London and, most significantly, a deadly threat that tears at his own heart.
Assault on integrity
The youngest son of his lover has been kidnapped and placed at murderous risk, in an attempt to corrupt Falcon. We don't know for certain who is behind this assault on his integrity, but it is the source of the novel's emotional strength. The victim is an adorable innocent, and his mother, Consuelo, is a strongly realized character -- sexy, angry, brave, driven, occasionally hysterical -- and whenever Wilson focuses on her relationship with the patient, palpably smitten Falcon, his novel leaps to life.
The book is also good when Falcon is dealing with a secret agent he's running in Morocco. Yacoub Diouri is a well-to-do businessman, a devoted family man and a homosexual who comes under insufferable, ultimately tragic pressure when it looks as if his son is about to be recruited by Jihadists while his Saudi lover is also under threat. He's a very human character, at once sad, nervous and rather more finely drawn than your average recruit to crime fiction's dark side.
That said, however, Wilson has his problems with "The Ignorance of Blood." Admittedly, he has an almost manic gift for layering his plots and maneuvering them toward satisfying, occasionally surprising, interconnections. But he has to lay a lot of pipe to make that happen, and it's often pretty dull work. Then there's the question of his manner. As a stylist, he is more stolid than witty, and you find yourself yearning -- fruitlessly -- for a cynical, enlivening wisecrack. Wilson is essentially a realist, all too often given to a fully detailed reporting of the cops discussing the enigmas of their case or planning their next move. The same is sometimes true when they're interviewing witnesses or confronting a possible perp. These scenes bulk up the book, and slow it down. There's much to be said for the brisk summary in crime novels, especially when wordy encounters do not help to particularize the minor characters. I had some difficulty telling one member of Falcon's detective team from another, or keeping straight the uniformly brutal mafiosi who drift in and out of the action.
Finally, there's the matter of brutality to consider. If a writer is committed to realism, that means that when blood is shed, there is an obligation to detail the pattern of its spattering. If a minor, but pivotal, character is going to be cut up with a chain saw, we're going to see it and feel it with discomfiting force. Come to think of it, maybe that's what Wilson's title means; there is something ignorant about this flow of gore. I'm not arguing for a return to Agatha Christie gentility -- the blood-free corpse in the library and all that. I am saying, though, that realism has its traps and that even a writer as intelligent as Wilson can be forced into them almost against his will.
We all know that mysteries and thrillers are highly stylized forms. They all proceed toward an inevitable (and satisfying) conclusion in which a temporary state of criminal disorder is soothed and a state of order is restored to the little universe the book has explored. I would argue, however, that, at its best, the forms are also stylish. The fugal wisecracking of Elmore Leonard, the noirish elegance with which wartime Europe is rendered by Alan Furst, the gnarly moral landscapes of Greeneland are all attempts to transcend mere plotting as the main element that keeps us reading.
Robert Wilson is a plain-spoken, quite competent writer who has found in Spain a novel setting for his stories, which he renders in an attractive way. There is no reason not to pass a few idle hours with one of his books. Just do not expect to be jolted out of your semi-languorous state by a memorable metaphor or an arresting moral diversion.