For years Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired me to read novels set in Europe. Some of these have been works of crime fiction, a genre frequently associated with Scandinavia. While I’ve only read a handful of these offerings from the Nordic lands (one of which, Peter Høeg’s 90s runaway hit Smilla’s Sense of Snow, I loved) I’ve also enjoyed stuff from other parts of Europe like Peiter Aspe’s Pieter Van In series set in the Belgian city of Bruges, as well as Vilmos Kondor’s historical thriller Budapest Noir. On more than one occasion, when needing to take a break from my usual diet of heavy nonfiction I’ll grab a piece of entertaining crime fiction set somewhere in Europe. A week or so ago while surfing Overdrive I once again found myself in such a mood and decided to grab something of that genre, this time from Spain. Originally published in 2015 with an American English-language version released the following year, Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian has been a terrific introduction into the world of Spanish crime fiction.
In the Basque village of Baztan a serial killer has been murdering teen girls and ritualistically arranging their denuded bodies in the woods with their makeup removed, hair carefully arranged and pubic region shaved and topped with a txantxigorri, a local Basque pastry. Inspector Amaia Salazar is called in from Pamplona to investigate and finds no evidence of rape or molestation. Instead it appears the killer is making twisted attempts to erase the girls’ budding sexuality, turning them back into innocent children by removing the accoutrements of womanhood, even posing them to resemble holy Madonnas. Stranger still, animal hairs belonging to a large mammal, possibly a bear are found at the crime scenes. This prompts the locals to speculate a mythical creature known as a Basajaún, a kind of Basque Bigfoot might somehow be involved. Naturally, Inspector Salazar is the ideal person to catch the killer, having grown up in Baztan and possessing first hand knowledge of its inhabitants and close-knit culture. But in doing so must face the demons of her childhood, and deal with other long-simmering tensions within her family.
Reading The Invisible Guardian I was struck by the degree in which Amaia is forever occupying opposing worlds simultaneously. She’s both Basque and a Spanish citizen. Raised in a rural environment she also a resident of urban Pamplona. She’s a criminal investigator in the male-dominated field of law enforcement, and a Spaniard trained by the American FBI. She uses the latest technology in hopes of catching the killer yet is not opposed to using her childhood tarot deck to divine his identity.
Even her family is a study in contrast. Married to an American, her marriage is a happy one but the marriages of her two sisters are disasters, as was that of her parents. Emotionally and physically abused by her mentally ill mother, she carries the scars from a woman who claimed to love her, but instead sought to kill her.
All of this, plus a serial killer targeting females who, because of their youth resemble girls and women at the same time gives this contemporary thriller set against a forested backdrop of otherworldly mythology an almost quantum state of being, setting it apart from others of this genre. I thoroughly enjoyed The Invisible Guardian and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.