Written by Jason Webster — If you want a break from all icy stone settings of the Scandinavian novels that are so popular at the moment, how about a trip to the hot and fiesty city of Valencia in southern Spain? Or the Bull Kills You introduces the cynical and somewhat morose Max Cámara, a chief inspector with the national police who investigates homicides. The book was longlisted for the CWA’s New Blood dagger in 2011 and has been hailed as an example of the newly emerging sub-genre Mediterranean Noir.
Do you like bullfighting? Most people don’t and nor does Cámara, but the book opens on a March day when he’s forced to cover for his boss who is an honorary president at the local bullring. He must oversee a fight, and tries to look away as the bulls are pierced with lances and darts, and eventually finished off with swords. Their ears and tails are handed out to the matadors as trophies. Spain’s greatest bullfighter Jorge Blanco is competing but Cámara just wants to get it over with.
This changes that evening when Blanco’s body is discovered in the bullring. He’s been strangled and then mutilated in the same way bulls are when they’re killed in the ring, a sabre through is ribcage and spine. A veritable piece of art, his corpse is a statement created by the culprit. The heat is on for Cámara. The man was a national hero, his boss Pardo wants the case solved fast, and there’s all sorts of intrigue around the bullring and in Valencia itself.
For a start, the region’s ‘fallas’ celebration is going on, which involves plenty of all night street parties, the burning of various symbolic effigies and lots of fireworks – fireworks that could conceal gunfire. Secondly, there’s the city’s election with the current mayoress running on an anti-bullfighting platform. Sympathy for the dead matador could turn voters against her. Then there are the vociferous hippies and new age types who protest outside the bullring each day. They certainly have motive to murder a matador.
The victim’s funeral takes place and the following day his celebrity fiancee Carmen appears in a spread of nude photos in one of the country’s top magazines. Bizarre! But perhaps not as strange as the fact that the matador also had a gay lover, who is initially arrested for the murder. When Blanco’s agent is also killed and cut up in similar fashion, the investigation shifts to the bullfighting fraternity and Cámara hears rumours that the Ramirez family, known for breeding the country’s strongest bulls, might be doping, tiring out or injuring their animals before the fights. If true this would be tantamount to an insult to Valencian society.
The culture of Valencia is effortlessly mixed into the story, which has extra depth thanks to the way Webster plays with the symbolic side of bullfighting. And it’s not just via the murders that he does this. Cámara’s personal life is in limbo as his girlfriend Almudena is trying to get pregnant. The detective becomes convinced that he’s infertile even though he hasn’t been tested. She goes off with another man. He has a fling. Then thinks about the sexual symbolism evoked by bullfighting and its macho, virile combatants. The emptiness he feels and his inability to solve the case send him towards an existential realisation.
There’s plenty of passion and confusion in the hot streets of Valencia as Cámara closes in on the killer. I never quite bought the relationship Camara has with his boss and there are one or two events during the climactic chapters that seemed a little too deliberate and contrived. However because Or the Bull Kills You works at several levels, it’s a fascinating read that takes you deep into a murderous tale at the bullring, with mad carnival scenes and melange of interesting and authentic characters.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars